Thursday, May 24, 2007

China seeks to assure on food safety amid U.S. talks

By Lindsay Beck
BEIJING (Reuters) - China sought to assure its trade partners on Thursday that its food products were safe, after the United States called Chinese food exports a "top concern" and pressed Chinese officials to strengthen oversight.

Food products from China have come under intense scrutiny around the world after a spate of safety breaches involving toxins in products from pet food to toothpaste, which prompted wide recalls and government investigations.

"Recent events have forced very clearly, as one of our top concerns, the safety of food and medicine," U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said at the close of a two-day "strategic economic dialogue" in Washington involving scores of senior officials from the United States and China.

Fears over the safety of Chinese food products have become so great the Agriculture Ministry was forced to dismiss a rumor on Thursday that bananas grown on the southern island province of Hainan might contain a virus similar to SARS.

"It is purely a rumor and it is impossible for bananas to contain SARS-like virus," the ministry said in a statement on its Web site (, referring to text messages some mobile phone users had received.

China has been responding to the growing concerns about its food industry with a series of measures, including investigations to probe the use of melamine scrap -- the additive that led to at least 16 pet deaths in the United States -- and companies exporting toothpaste containing a lethal chemical.

On Thursday, China's General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine sought to explain to U.S. regulators its policy on antibiotics in catfish, after the states of Alabama and Mississippi banned imports of the fish citing high levels of fluoroquinolones, Xinhua news agency reported.

The antibiotic was not banned in China, Japan or the European Union, Xinhua said, adding that although the states in questions had a "zero level" standard, concentrations did not exceed levels accepted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) federally.

"The U.S. side should abide by the WTO principle of minimizing the impact of health issues on trade ... and not take restrictive measures against all imported products of this kind," the report said.


In China's latest step to tighten controls, Beijing said it would strengthen oversight of food products entering the city.

China's capital, which hosts the Olympic Games next year, will also increase rewards for uncovering unlawful production methods from 10,000 yuan ($1,300) to 50,000 yuan.

Beijing "this year will set up a supervision system to analyze food additives, and intensify management of the approval system and record-keeping of food additive enterprises," the Beijing News reported.

Beijing is extremely sensitive to ensuring every aspect of security, including food safety, for the 2008 Olympics, when millions of visitors -- athletes, journalists and tourists -- descend on the city.

The food safety issue has become a flashpoint in relations between the United States and China, which produces billions of dollars worth of counterfeit and substandard goods, from fake liquor and medicines to luxury handbags.
Among the host of measures Washington is seeking are more transparent food regulations and permission to send U.S. audit teams to China.

Currently, all vegetable protein imports from China are on "import alert," which means they get immediate inspection, and the FDA is beginning to check shipments of toothpaste.

Talks on food safety will continue in Washington.

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