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US, China Pledge Increased Cooperation on Food Safety


The Bush administration says a senior health delegation sent to Beijing has reached an agreement to improve the safety of food and drug imports from China. U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt says the U.S. and China will share more information on food safety, and work to strengthen China's regulatory abilities. Leta Hong Fincher has more on China's food-safety problems.

A Chinese food vendor argues with police during a recent health inspection in Beijing. Stepped-up patrols like this are part of China's attempt to convince the world that it is cracking down on contaminated food.

Li Changjiang is head of China's product safety watchdog, the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine."There are many small food manufacturers making a wide range of products under poor conditions. The quality of their products is not stable and sometimes substandard."

The Chinese government says almost 20 percent of products made for domestic consumption fail to meet quality and safety standards.

As a result, many Chinese consumers are anxious about their food supply.

One Beijing resident said, "China's food safety problems have been so bad that we don't know what to do. We can't keep up with what we can eat and what we're not supposed to eat."

Food in China used to be produced by farmers and sold to individuals. But Huang Jing, a China scholar at the Brookings Institution research group in Washington, says rapid economic growth has revolutionized the food industry. "Food has become massively processed, produced and massively sold. It's become an industry. And in this transition, it [China] has to establish a new system, a new mechanism to make sure the massively produced food that we eat every day is safe, is up to standard. But obviously the Chinese government or Chinese political system failed in this regard."

In July, China executed the former head of its food and drug watchdog agency for taking bribes to approve untested drugs. Huang says the government wanted to send a message that it will not tolerate corruption. But he argues that fraud will continue to plague regulatory agencies because China's one-party political system cannot police itself.

Huang Jing of the Brookings Institution says, "We know that in China there are hundreds of laws or regulations regarding food safety, but the problem is that the enforcement is very weak, is very arbitrary and is not transparent."

Corruption is not the only cause of China's food problems. A.T. Kearney, an international management-consulting firm, recently released a study saying that China needs to invest a $100 billion in food infrastructure over the next 10 years.

Jim Morehouse led the food safety study. "About half of the food that you will find in a typical American supermarket is refrigerated, frozen chilled, somehow temperature-controlled. And in China that is much less so, and particularly the infrastructure does not exist in any modern form for getting it from a field to get it a few hundred miles or more into a supermarket with all of the integrity that you would find in the West."

As millions of Chinese from the countryside move to the cities, Morehouse says the demands on China's food system will continue to increase. "It's no longer just going to be Beijing and Shanghai, it's going to be the 50 or more major cities in China and each of them is going to have to be brought up to some reasonable standard of food handling."

As China has become the world's largest exporter of consumer products, its food safety problems have migrated to other countries --- notably the United States.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) officials have begun to hold higher-level talks with their Chinese counterparts. Former F.D.A. official Scott Gottlieb says the collaboration is long overdue. "The U.S. isn't working very well with China in my opinion. There haven't been historically very close ties between the two regulatory agencies."

Gottlieb is now a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute research group in Washington. He says U.S. regulators need to gain a deeper understanding of Chinese food manufacturers. "You want to know if they're a reliable manufacturer, if they've been engaged in criminal activity in the past. That requires bilateral agreements, information sharing, close collaboration with regulatory authorities, and historically it's been harder to do with China."

Gottlieb predicts that food-safety could become a prominent issue in U.S.-China trade disputes. China says it wants to work with the United States to improve the safety of Chinese exports. For now, the greatest victims of lax food safety appears to be the Chinese themselves.

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