China played down international concerns about tainted food exports on Tuesday, saying the problems were not as bad as reported and displaying seized counterfeit products to show authorities were enforcing safety protections.
To make its case, the government organized a rare visit by more than 100 foreign and domestic reporters to a food safety lab and storehouse where bogus goods from chewing gum to soy sauce were stacked on shelves and arrayed in rows.
“Yes, there are now some problems of food safety of Chinese products. However, they are not serious. We should not exaggerate those problems,” Li Dongsheng, vice minister for the State Administration for Industry and Commerce, told reporters at the lab. China has developed “very good, very complete methods” to regulate product safety, Li said.
China’s poor safety record has increasingly come under scrutiny as its goods make their way to global markets. Major buyers such as the United States, Japan, and the European Union have pushed for Beijing to improve inspections.
The pressure has increased in recent months as U.S. inspectors have banned or turned away Chinese exports including wheat gluten tainted with the chemical melamine, blamed for dog and cat deaths in North America. Monkfish containing life-threatening levels of pufferfish toxins, drug-laced frozen eel and juice made with unsafe color additives have also been on the growing list of unacceptable products.
'No problem with food safety'
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has also stopped all imports of Chinese toothpaste to test for a deadly chemical reportedly found in tubes sold in Australia, the Dominican Republic and Panama.
In response, China has gone on the offensive. In the past week, the country has highlighted at least four American products as unsafe or not up to Chinese safety standards.
But at the same time, safety officials have urged better surveillance at all levels and promised to set up a food recall system, the country’s first, by year end.
“We are very concerned about food safety in China and very concerned about protecting the rights of consumers,” Li said. “But we do not want to cause panic among the people.”
Li, whose agency oversees domestic product quality, insisted China was taking the issue seriously.
“There is now largely no problem with food safety. It is an issue the people care about greatly,” Li said. “So if there is a small problem, it becomes a big problem for us. So basically for now we can guarantee food safety.”
Leading source of pirated products
At the Beijing food lab, technicians wearing white coats tested packages of spring rolls, dumplings and other frozen foods for toxic chemicals. Others sat at computers analyzing results.
In another room, a variety of fake products were displayed including Wrigley’s chewing gum, Shiseido skin care products and Levi’s jeans.
China has long been the world’s leading source of fake medicines and drugs, illegally copied music, movies, designer clothes and other goods. U.S. officials say its exports cost legitimate producers worldwide up to $50 billion a year in lost potential sales.
Li said government food safety procedures include a hot line set up in 1999 that has grown into a surveillance network of local groups and government bodies.
Local industry and commerce authorities have conducted widespread inspections of department stores, supermarkets, outdoor markets and wholesale markets, the State Council, China’s Cabinet, said in a statement.
It said 4.6 million inquires, complaints and reports were received last year from consumers and 16,000 tons of unsafe food products were ordered withdrawn from the market in 2006. It did not give details of the products or why they were withdrawn.
The statement said the surveillance network has also expanded to focus on consumer protection, trademark protection, food safety supervision and advertising regulations.