(Adds details on new law, paragraphs 7,8)
By Ben Blanchard
BEIJING, Oct 31 (Reuters) - The Chinese government approved in principle on Wednesday a new food safety law aimed at raising standards at every level of production, a senior official said.
The quality of Chinese goods has come under international scrutiny following scandals involving products ranging from toothpaste and pet food to toys and fish.
Beijing insists the issue is limited to a few errant companies and is being hyped by foreign media as well as being driven by a protectionist agenda in some countries. But it has also vowed to tighten checks and crack down on illegal behaviour.
The State Council, or cabinet, has now approved the food safety law and it will be passed to the largely rubber-stamp parliament for the final nod, product quality watchdog chief Li Changjiang told World Health Organisation head Margaret Chan.
"This law totally covers how to standardise our food products’ production, processing, sale and supervision," Li told reporters.
"I believe that the promulgation of this law will certainly effectively raise China’s food safety situation and guarantee food safety and people’s health," he said, but gave no timetable.
The law mandates better release of information about food safety issues, higher fines for wayward firms and punishment of officials who act irresponsibly, and guarantees the public’s right to compensation and to sue, the central government said on its Web site (www.gov.cn).
Food imports and exports will also be more closely examined, it added.
Chan told Li that she was happy with the actions China had taken to raise standards, especially the Cabinet-level efforts led by Vice Premier Wu Yi.
"In my meeting with Madame Wu Yi, I was very impressed with the work that has been undertaken at the State Council level, coordinated by her," Chan said.
"So I’m confident that the way forward will be good for the world and for China. This is exactly what we are looking to you for — strengthened efforts," she added.
Public fears about food safety grew in 2004, when at least 13 babies died of malnutrition in Anhui province, in eastern China, after they were fed fake milk powder with no nutritional value.
Since then, the government has taken a tougher attitude.
In the latest crackdown, authorities have "caught" 774 "criminal suspects" who made or sold fake or substandard food and drugs, the watchdog said earlier this week.
Li showed Chan a high-tech surveillance system carrying live pictures from border checkpoints and certain food processing factories, as well as his department’s Web site.
Chan nodded approvingly as Li showed how easy it was to access on the site a blacklist of companies banned from exporting food from China, as well as those no longer allowed to import into China.
"The Chinese government has taken a highly responsible attitude towards food safety," Li said. "The level previously was not so high, as China is big and has a huge population."
With the new law, Li said: "I believe that China’s food safety situation will change for the better."