Over the past two decades there have been some dramatic changes in Chinese attitudes towards food standards. Legislation is now frequently reviewed and updated to meet the highest standards suggested by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Trade Organisation.
China's Institute of Nutrition and Food Hygiene has been an active participant in a joint WHO/FAO/UNDP food contamination monitoring programme since way back in 1981. On the other hand, a recent study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development claimed that two-thirds of Chinese people do not have access to safe drinking water, and the US State Department (among others) strongly advises travellers not to drink water direct from the tap, even in the big cities.
The Ministry of Public Health has overall responsibility for national policies on food safety. At the county, district and municipal level, a Bureau of Public Health has an ?epidemic prevention station' that is responsible for enforcing laws and regulations relating to public health, including food safety. Their duties include the inspection of restaurants, quality control of food, investigation of out-breaks of food poisoning, and offering education on proper food handling and preparation. The Institute of Food Safety Control and Inspection works closely with the Ministry of Public Health in formulating and revising food regulations and standards.
The Chinese government really began to get serious about food standards legislation in the 1970s with the introduction of national food hygiene standards for grains, oils, meats, seafood, beverages, eggs and food additives. The standards are under constant revision. In 1979, the Chinese National Regulations on Food Safety were introduced, which served as the basic legislation to strengthen disease prevention measures. The regulations dealt with general health standards for food, food safety requirements, hygiene and the inspection of exported and imported products.
Violators of the regulations could expect punishments ranging from a fine to criminal prosecution. In principle at least, all restaurants and other suppliers of prepared food have to be licensed and are subject to inspection and an annual medical examination of the food handlers.
Tougher laws introduced
In 1983 wider-ranging and tougher laws were approved by the National People's Congress to replace the national regulations, covering general food safety, additives, food containers and packaging, food processing equipment and general health. The new laws also revised and updated inspection regulations and procedures and offered clearer guidelines on the legal responsibility of just about every person involved in the production, preparation and sale of food.
It is somewhat ironic, therefore, that plagued with outbreaks of food-borne diseases, the use of disposable wooden chop-sticks emerged as the average person's first and often last line of protection against food poisoning. China is the biggest consumer, producer and exporter of disposable chop-sticks, felling 25m trees a year to make 45bn pairs. Two-thirds are used in China and feware recycled. However, China is severely short of trees caused by widespread felling. This is a contributory factor in growing desertification that experts say contributes to the increasing problem of devastating floods, that in turn are largely responsible for the spread of communicable ?including food borne ?disease. Obviously, even with the food standard laws the country has in place, something isn't quite right.
Hong Kong is responsible for and promulgates its own food safety laws. It is widely perceived as being more advanced in this area than the mainland, but major short-comings were revealed in a report printed in the local media last year based on an inter-view with an official of the Hong Kong Productivity Council (HKPC). It said that Hong Kong consumers were `endangered by a lack of sanitation in the preparation of fresh food'. Fresh food on sale is less hygienic than food prepared overseas, claimed Dr Lui Sun-Wing of the HKPC. He said that although Hong Kong enjoyed `world class status' in many aspects of life, the standard of its food hygiene was lagging. Since that report was first published, a HKDC official said he believed things have improved.
The situation is even worse across the border, although businesses that export food-stuffs to China claim the laws are extremely tough and vigorously applied.
In 1995 the Food Hygiene Law stipulated new labelling requirements for foods. The law stipulates that packages of imported foods and food supplements should indicate in Chinese characters the name and origin of the product and its ingredients, the name and address of the manufacturer, the place and date of manufacture, and sell-by date. An examination certificate must be obtained from the State Administration for Entry-Exit Inspection and Quarantine (SAEIQ) before any food products can enter or leave the country.
Some exporters to China claim that, while certification applies to foreign and domestic food products, the reality is that standards and certification practices are often used as a barrier to trade, in order to protect the local market. A circular from a foreign trade commission at a Western consulate in Hong Kong states that, ?despite market access agreements, China continues to use non-tariff based measures such as health, animal health and food safety standards certificates to limit foreign competition.? There is a perception that there is a case of double standards when it comes to enforcing legislation. Such allegations were discussed during negotiations for World Trade Organisation membership and China has promised that all laws will be enforced equally.
Entry into the WTO may herald some changes. To begin with, there will be a radical revision of tariffs on food imports to China. And in order to meet WTO requirements, the SAEIQ is reportedly formulating and revising regulations on monitoring the safety of imported and exported food.
Also related to its WTO bid, in the past year China has introduced safety assessments on genetically modified food, risk management of natural toxic substances, and functional properties of health foods. Standards and documents on the assessment of these items will be prepared based on the risk assessment procedures and posted on the internet in order to meet WTO requirements on transparency.
China is constantly reviewing its rules and regulations regarding food and food hygiene standards, partly due to health concerns for its citizens, partly due to its efforts to pro-mote an open market and WTO membership, and partly due to concern from consumers. For example, China is looking to set up standards for `green' food – natural, organic and health foods will be promoted. About 10 organic food research centres have been established across the country, according to the State Environmental Protection Administration. These centres carry out research to develop new organic food and issue certificates to organic food producers.
In February, a coalition of groups lobbying for environmental, consumer and community rights submitted a joint petition to the Chinese government calling for a comprehensive and mandatory labelling system for genetically modified food. With no international regulations in place, pressure groups feel they have an important role to play in shaping policy in China. The government is looking at a system of including either mandatory or voluntary labelling.
It would be fair to say that China is making substantial progress in bringing its food and food hygiene standards into line with the most advanced industrialised countries. But local customs and traditions will play their part in how effectively these rules are followed at street level. From the ubiquitous noodle vendors and barbecued meat stands, fresh markets where produce of all description is on sale, to the luxurious splendour of five-star hotel restaurants, economics will have an impact on food acquisition, storage, preparation and serving.
With huge gaps in wealth and divergent cultures, it will be some time before the traveller in China can feel equally safe taking a nibble of grilled chicken from a road-side stall or sitting down to a haute-cuisine dinner in the finest restaurant. Or even taking a drink of water direct from the tap.
Food that is marked as imported may really be domestic. A recent inspection turned up a number of violations of China's food import laws. Some imported foods were found to be imported from countries other than what was given as their origin; other foods were found to be imported illegally from countries on which an import ban had been imposed; and still other foods were found to be lacking the health certificate required to import them. Some `imported fruits' were actually discovered to be domestic products, according to a China Economic Times article.
The State Administration for Industry and Commerce and SAEIQ disclosed these violations which were uncovered in a random inspection of imported commodities carried out in Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Guangdong. The main commodities inspected were imported fruits, health foods and dairy products.
In an inspection of 81 lots of 35 kinds of fruit imported from 15 countries and regions, the most prevalent violation of import law found was falsification of the origin of the fruit. Frequently, domestic fruits were misleadingly labelled as imported ones. The two most prevalent violations found in the inspection of health food were missing required certificates of health and falsification of the origin of the food.
A total of 4,032 individual items of imported dairy products were inspected. Here, the most prevalent problem was missing health certificates, the report stated.