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China report says domestic food safety falls short

July 05, 2007|Mitchell Landsberg | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — While international concern over China's food and product safety has focused on exports to the United States and other countries, a report published Wednesday suggests that it is the Chinese people who have the most to fear.

A government watchdog says that more than 99% of the foods exported to the United States met Chinese quality standards, slightly higher than the safety score of U.S. foods imported into China. But the report says nearly one-fifth of all goods sold domestically failed to meet standards.

The report by the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine was the latest effort by the government to reassure foreign consumers and to demonstrate that a recent string of incidents involving tainted products, including potentially lethal toothpaste and pet food, was being blown out of proportion. China is worried about a consumer backlash against an industry that generates billions of dollars in sales each year.

"China attaches great importance to the quality and safety of Chinese exports," Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said at a news conference Tuesday.

But though officials have called the international reaction overblown, an influential Chinese newspaper published an editorial Wednesday saying that Chinese food sometimes failed other countries' quality standards because China's own standards were too lax.

"It is becoming increasingly urgent to raise the food safety standards to international levels," the official China Daily said.

The newspaper, citing unidentified sources, said the government recently abolished hundreds of food safety standards that the industry had set for itself. The government move was part of a campaign to overhaul and raise the standards.

The latest government report on consumer safety seemed to reinforce a point Beijing has been trying to make in response to the tainted food scandals: that the most unreliable products are made by relatively small, hard-to-monitor companies, while the large companies with goods most likely to be exported have significantly higher standards.

In a survey of 7,200 products from more than 6,000 companies, government researchers say they found that 93% of the products made by large companies met national standards, compared with 73% of those from small companies.

The products surveyed during the first half of this year included food, everyday commodities and farm machinery, officials said.

Overall, the report said, 19.1% of the products made for domestic consumption were substandard, a slight improvement from last year.

Separately, the watchdog agency said that 99.2% of the food China shipped to the United States in 2006 met quality standards, compared with 99% of U.S. foodstuffs imported by China.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not issue reports that correspond exactly to those from Chinese authorities, but publishes monthly accounts of how many food items are refused entry to the United States. For June 2007, there were 146 such items from China.

Some cases were relatively innocuous, involving items rejected for improper labels or lack of proper registration. But others included preserved lemons and dried peaches that were labeled "unsafe" and "filthy," and pet treats contaminated with salmonella, as well as food rejected for unsafe levels of pesticides or anti-bacterial agents.

China had the largest number of items rejected that month, ahead of India and Mexico. China has led the list for four of the last six months.

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mitchell.landsberg@latimes.com

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