December 18, 2007 / 10:45 PM / 12 years ago

China food safety seen mired in economic transition

By Missy Ryan

WASHINGTON, Dec 18 (Reuters) - China is struggling to meet food safety demands from trading partners as it slowly modernizes a food production system still rooted in small-scale family farms, U.S. and Chinese officials said on Tuesday.

"China is a country in economic transition and it has a mixture of traditional problems and modern problems that both coexist," Wu Yongning, an official at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a seminar on food safety at a Washington think tank.

Those problems, he said, now range from improper food preparation on family-run farms to shortcuts taken on industrial chicken farms.

Fred Gale, a senior economist at the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Economic Research Service, said China was embracing new technologies and reforming laws in a bid to bring safer food to consumers at home and abroad.

He said that "islands" of top-notch production where modern practices are the norm are spreading in China.

But he said the problem remains in the smaller farms and facilities, which still account for the lion’s share of production, that may fall below regulators’ radar screen.

That disparity in quality became a sore point among U.S. politicians this year after a spate of unsafe Chinese imports — food and other goods — turned up on U.S. shores.

The Chinese imports are only one part of a larger story about dangerous or adulterated goods, made here or abroad, that has unsettled consumer confidence.

But Chinese food makes up a more and more important slice of what Americans eat. From 1990 to 2006, China’s share of U.S. food imports grew from 1.5 percent to 5 percent, according to the Agriculture Department.

The Bush administration is taking steps to crack down on the problem, including a new agreement that would bring tighter oversight of problem goods coming from China and would allow U.S. auditors to visit Chinese plants.

Critics complain that China’s record on enforcement is lackluster.

Wu said pathogenic microorganisms — foodborne illness — was still China’s biggest food safety problem, rather than chemical contamination.

He said oversight had improved from farm to factory, but he also ticked off a litany of contaminants — or pollution-related problems that have been found in food in China.

Problems have soared in the last decade in meat and seafood.

"People want zero risk. I think it’s almost impossible," Wu said. (Editing by Russell Blinch and Marguerita Choy)

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