updated 3/2/2009 10:57:39 AM ET 2009-03-02T15:57:39

China's food safety situation is still grim, although some improvements have been made in the wake of a scandal last year that killed at least six babies and made another 300,000 sick, the Health Ministry said Monday.

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The comments from the ministry came after China's legislature enacted a tough food safety law Saturday, promising tougher penalties for makers of tainted products. Several food scares in recent years have exposed serious flaws in monitoring of the nation's food supply.

"At present, China's food security situation remains grim, with high risks and contradictions popping out," the ministry said in a news release, adding that it cannot afford "even the slightest relaxation over supervision."

The law, which was five years in the making, consolidates hundreds of disparate regulations and standards covering China's 500,000 food processing companies.

It pays special attention to the issue of food additives that lay at the heart of last year's scandal involving infant formula produced by the Sanlu dairy and other companies. No additives will be allowed unless they can be proven both necessary and safe, according to the law, which goes into effect June 1.

Food producers held responsible
China's government has been trying to restore confidence in the country's food supply ever since revelations in September that formula was contaminated with the industrial chemical melamine. The tainted milk is blamed for the deaths and illnesses in the babies.

Vice Health Minister Chen Xiaohong said the government was confident the enforcement of the law will boost food safety, since it holds food producers primarily responsible for any problems.

"We have become more keenly aware of the need to step up regulation and supervision of food safety in this country," Chen said at a briefing. "We deem it important to regulate these food producers and traders according to law."

China's regulatory system had previously come under scrutiny after exports of pet food ingredients killed and sickened pets in North and South America in 2007. The chemical in the pet food was the same as in the milk scandal — melamine.

Authorities ratcheted up inspections following the pet food problems, but China continues to have trouble regulating its countless small and illegally run operations, often blamed for introducing illegal chemicals and food additives into the food chain.

Ma Aiguo, director of the Agriculture Ministry's Agri-food Quality and Safety Center, acknowledged the difficulties of monitoring farming operations but said China's agriculture is "safe and reliable."

"Given the scattered distribution of agricultural production in our country and the backward mode of production, we are facing great pressure for ensuring the quality and safety of agriculture produced," Ma said. "It will remain a long-term and arduous task for us."

China has 450,000 registered food production and processing enterprises, but many — about 350,000 — employ just 10 people or fewer. The U.N. said in a report last year that the small enterprises present many of China's greatest food safety challenges.

The law also calls for a monitoring and supervision system, a set of national standards on food safety, severe punishment for offenders, and a product recall system.

It also states that the State Council, China's Cabinet, would set up a state-level food safety commission. The current system of splitting food safety responsibilities among many different agencies has been blamed for uneven enforcement and confusion.

Toughened penalties under the law include cancellation of licenses and punitive damages. Companies and individuals can be held liable for medical and other compensation as well as face criminals charges.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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