China needs more coherent food-safety system: U.N.

BEIJING (Reuters) - China, fighting a spreading tainted milk scandal, needs a more coherent food-safety system, with unified laws, one overarching watchdog and faster sharing of information, the United Nations said on Wednesday.

China has been swept by a series of food- and product-safety scandals involving goods as diverse as toys, tires, toothpaste, pet food, fish, beans, dumplings and baby cribs.

In the latest case, thousands of Chinese children fell ill and at least four died from drinking milk formula contaminated with melamine, which has since been found in a series of drinks and foods and led to products being pulled from shops worldwide. “We see that a disjointed system with dispersed authority between different ministries and agencies resulted in poor communication and maybe prolonged (the) outbreak with a late response,” said Jorgen Schlundt, the World Health Organisation’s food safety chief, referring to the melamine case.

“We need to have a coherent system that covers the full farm-to-fork table,” he told a news conference in Beijing at the launch of a U.N. paper on improving food safety in China.

Inconsistent regulations, poor enforcement, weak rule of law and powerful local officials and businessmen have allowed illicit operations and practices to thrive with sometimes minimal and patchy scrutiny from central authorities.

Despite mounting international expectations for a food safety overhaul, China’s vast size and complex web of government agencies and product quality watchdogs have long made maintaining standards a problematic and Herculean task.

China, which is currently overhauling its food safety legislation, says it is aware of the problems.

“For an effective food safety system there should be one overarching piece of food safety legislation that covers food safety from production through to consumption,” added the WHO’s regional adviser on food safety, Anthony Hazzard.

“...overseas governments and consumers have to be confident that when a product is certified as safe from China’s authorities, that it is safe.”

Wal-Mart Stores Inc said on Wednesday that it plans to crack down on its Chinese suppliers, announcing steps to enforce stricter quality and environmental standards for the products it sells, after a slew of scandals over made-in-China goods.

Khalid Malik, the U.N. Resident Coordinator in China, said he was confident the Chinese government was taking the right steps.

“It’s clear that many things may not connect, and there may be many things to improve on, but what we are heartened by is that there is an increasingly strong commitment to improving things,” he said.

Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Nick Macfie