Chinese consumers increasingly are buying packaged foods and drugs, and local companies are rushing to meet demand. But some unscrupulous businesses are flooding markets with unsafe products, at times with deadly consequences. The head of China's Food and Drug Administration pledges to do more to protect consumers, but acknowledged he also is afraid to eat many food products.
The effectiveness of China's year-old State Food and Drug administration is being challenged after a series of incidents involving substandard foods. In one of the worst cases recently, dozens of babies in rural Anhui province were left malnourished and ill after they were fed fake powdered infant formula. At least 12 children died.
Fan Zhihong is a professor of Nutrition and Food Safety at Beijing's China Agricultural University. She says the problem of substandard packaged foods is most acute in the countryside, where impoverished farmers do not have access to even the most basic information on nutrition.
?Our consumers are in urgent need of knowledge about nutrition and food safety,? Ms. Fan said. ?Because of the lack of basic knowledge, our consumers are so easily cheated by the dishonest producers.?
The fake milk powder cases were reported extensively in the tightly controlled state media. Analysts say that is an indication the problem may be much larger.
Wang Hai is a consumer advocate in Beijing. He said, ?This issue really shows that there are big problems in our government institutions and in the monitoring of quality control in China.?
The extent of concern over food and drug safety became clearer than ever this month, when the Food and Drug Administration's director, Zheng Xiaoyu, went on state television and said he himself worries about eating packaged food.
At his agency's first news briefing Thursday, Mr. Zheng said the government is starting to pay more attention to food safety. However, he suggested the agency still lacks sufficient funding.
?In the future, the government will continue to give importance to food and drug safety,? Mr. Zheng said. ?Although our material foundation, or economic strength, is not strong enough, the government will continue to try to give its best support within its capacity.?
When asked how many people die each year in China from unsafe food or drugs, Mr. Zheng said his agency does not keep specific figures.
The National People's Congress - China's legislative body - set up the agency last year in response to persistent complaints about substandard food products and numerous cases of mass food poisoning.
One year into its existence, the agency has yet to launch a promised food safety education campaign, and the extent of its mandate remains in question. The agency has the power to make regulations, but the enforcement of the rules remains in the hands of health agencies in the provinces.
One additional problem in China is that local officials often ignore central government policies and regulations. This is particularly a problem when the regulations affect companies that are owned by local governments, such as many food producers and markets.
Professor Fan estimates it will take several years before issues of jurisdiction and coordination with other agencies are resolved.
?There will be a conflict between the power of local governments and health agencies and the power of the China FDA. I don't think the China FDA can directly supervise every place, every local market, at least in the very near future. So they need time to negotiate about the power of the China FDA,? Ms. Fan said.
With China's economy booming and consumer spending on the rise, the government is eager to show it is taking steps to resolve issues of food and drug safety.
Police have arrested at least 47 people they say are linked to the fake milk. On Thursday, authorities announced they have begun investigating two local officials who they suspect knew that the fake milk products were on the market and did not report it.
Analysts say that in the absence of coordinated enforcement, officials will have to rely on announcements of arrests, and other publicity measures to show they are serious about guaranteeing food safety.