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China Struggles as Foreign Criticism of Tainted Products Grows

While criticism of China grows for its export of tainted food products and other consumables, the government in Beijing has yet to come up with convincing measures for improving the country's food safety system. Daniel Schearf reports from Beijing.

American and European Union officials this week expressed concern about China's lax food safety enforcement and lack of transparency, after contaminated pet food ingredients from China killed hundreds of dogs in North America.

The Dominican Republic has joined in the criticism, after it discovered that thousands of tubes of toothpaste from China contained a potentially deadly chemical used in engine coolants. The republic's authorities pulled the toothpaste from the shelves Tuesday, and have launched an investigation.

Hu Xiaosong is a professor at China Agricultural University in Beijing. He says China's food safety authorities have improved surveillance of food product quality, but he says the still-developing system is challenged by a poor legal structure. He also says the government has to deal with a huge population, and slow-to-react local governments.

"If there are not enough good ground-level monitoring conditions, and not enough funding guarantees, completely supervising so many decentralized rural households and so many small and medium-sized enterprises makes complete control truly difficult," Hu said.

Chinese officials Tuesday vowed to crack down on food safety violators with harsher punishments, and to improve surveillance of food safety standards. But experts doubt the measures will substantially improve food safety in a country that strictly controls information.

Despite the international outcry, media coverage in China of the contaminated exports has been almost non-existent.

Chinese officials initially denied the products' origin, and were slow to cooperate with American food safety officials who traveled to China after the pet food scare.

An editorial in the official China Daily newspaper criticized Chinese food safety authorities' initial denial as "unprofessional" conduct. But the editorial in the English-language paper also asked for more understanding from the international community.

David Zweig is director of the Center on China's Transnational Relations at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. He says Beijing needs to stop censoring, and start informing.

"The Chinese government has not told people in China about this," Zweig said. "People have no idea that this has been going on ... Putting it in the China Daily does not help, because most Chinese do not read the China Daily. What they need is ... they need it in Chinese [language] newspapers, and on the news, and saying to people: 'Stop this."

Corruption in the food and drug approval process is one of China's problems. The former head of the country's Food and Drug Administration is on trial in Beijing for accepting bribes to allow substandard medicines onto the market.