Concerns over plan for control of food safety

Updated: 2011-10-26 07:38

By Zhou Wenting (China Daily)

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BEIJING - A plan to devolve control of food safety to city and county authorities has divided experts and government insiders over the impact it could have on supervision.

According to a document drawn up by the State Council, agencies covering product quality will soon be required to report their findings to officials at the same level, rather than superiors at the provincial level.

"Both watchdogs (the administration of quality supervision, inspection and quarantine and the administration of industry and commerce) are important for food safety regulation," reads the official document, dated Oct 10, "but the current rules have been superseded by the 2009 Food Safety Law, which says city and county governments should lead food safety supervision in their areas.

"To better fulfill a government responsibility, it is necessary to adjust the existing management system."

However, insiders say the move is a reversal of a policy introduced in the late 1990s designed to separate local authorities and law enforcement, thereby ensuring the impartiality of investigations.

"If this administrative power is returned, local authorities will surely interfere with the enforcement meted out by our department," said a district official with Tianjin's quality and technical supervision bureau, who did not want to be identified as discussing the new policy before it is implemented.

Some food safety experts agree, including Dong Jinshi, executive vice-president of the International Food Packaging Association.

"Local governments are inextricably linked with business for the sake of economic development, job creation and tax revenues," Dong said. "The nonfeasance of governments in the event of a conflict of interest could mean central departments are left in the dark about incidents."

Yet, he added that he also understands the desire to change the system.

"If a city watchdog reports to its provincial authority, the city government will lose its power to investigate cases and manage food safety in a unified way," he said.

As there are five departments sharing the task of supervising food safety (the others are the agricultural, health, and food and drugs bureaus), experts often warn of gray areas in the system, for which no one has responsibility. Officials say devolving power to local authorities will help close the loopholes.

"Gray areas will be wiped out when local governments are in charge of the whole process and are responsible for investigating cases from start to finish," said Hou Binsheng, deputy director of food production supervision for Tianjin, in North China.

He said quality and market regulators everywhere are looking into the changes, although none has taken action yet. The document by the State Council, China's Cabinet, does not set a deadline for implementation.