BOSTON--China's bureaucratic structure has failed to ensure food safety while contamination cases continue to spread, World Health Organization officials say.
In presenting a U.N. report on food safety on Oct. 22 in Beijing, WHO officials were supportive of efforts to reform China's regulatory system but critical of its response to the melamine scandal that has sickened over 53,000 infants who drank toxic milk formula.
"An old-fashioned system contributed to this event," said Jorgen Schlundt, director of WHO's food safety department, in comments quoted by XFN-Asia news agency.
"A disjointed system with dispersed authority between ministries and agencies resulted in poor communication and a prolonged outbreak with late response," Dr. Schlundt said. "If there had been better follow-up, this problem would not have been as severe."
The 29-page report, dated in March but released only last month, cites a fractured system that divides responsibility for safety among a host of agencies.
These include separate ministries for health, agriculture, and commerce, as well as the State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA), the State Administration of Industry and Commerce (SAIC), and the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (GAQSIQ), the U.N. report said.
As with other safety issues, such as environmental protection and conditions at coal mines, reports of local problems may be slow to reach central government ministries.
"In general, the food safety authorities at different levels are directly responsible to their respective regional government body, but receive instructions of a regulatory or technical nature from their national agency," the report said.
Reporting was a key issue in the coverup of kidney problems from formula made by the Sanlu Group, which were traced to the use of the plastic-making compound melamine as a protein substitute. The company first acknowledged the problems in September after receiving complaints as far back as March, according to the Health Ministry.
Local officials were among at least 25 individuals who have faced arrest or dismissal in the case. In September, the director of GAQSIQ also resigned. State Council investigators found melamine use among at least 22 dairy producers.
On Oct. 29, the Health Ministry said that 2,390 infants remain hospitalized. The toxic chemical has been blamed for four deaths. Many Chinese food products have been recalled or banned in countries around the world.
Despite an international outcry, melamine problems continue to spread. Last month, eggs sold in Hong Kong and several Chinese cities were found to contain high concentrations of melamine. Agriculture Ministry officials suspect the chemical was added to chicken feed, state media said.
Adding melamine is believed to be common practice, the Guangzhou Daily said on Oct. 29. The paper called for banning all illegal uses of the chemical as part of a new draft food safety law.
"The fact that melamine has been found in eggs produced by different farms suggests that the contamination cannot be an accidental case," said the official China Daily in a commentary on Oct. 31.
New draft law
China's new draft law on food safety, issued last month, would ban "even unharmful substances" from food unless they have been approved as additives, the official Xinhua news agency said.
But it is unclear whether the law would do anything to end China's bureaucratic conflicts. The draft only "asks the departments, especially those at the grassroots level, to improve communication, cooperate closely with each other and faithfully fulfill their legal responsibilities," said Xinhua.
In a Radio Free Asia phone interview from Geneva, WHO senior scientist Peter Ben Embarek said China's bureaucratic problems are similar to those found in other countries, but they need to be addressed.
"For all kinds of historical reasons, food safety activities are fragmented among different agencies, each covering one part of the food chain from primary production all the way to consumers," said Dr. Ben Embarek.
"This is a problem because the information about what's in the food and the sharing of data among all these agencies is not seamless and not easy," he said. The result is unnecessary delay in reporting and response.
"Unless you have one integrated system that covers the entire food chain, it's very difficult to really manage and ensure food safety in an efficient manner," Dr. Ben Embarek said.
But it is unclear from the draft law whether the government intends to create a single agency to manage the entire process or to shift any of the existing responsibilities within ministries.
Dr. Ben Embarek defended the government's effort to create a basic food safety law, saying it is needed as a framework for future reforms.
Michael Martin, Asia trade and finance analyst at the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress in Washington, told RFA that the question of conflicting interests has been "an issue [for] many, many years in China."
"When you have local authorities reporting both to the ministries as well as local government authorities, you create a dilemma for officials," said Martin. "They have an incentive to keep the local economy growing and vibrant. But on the other hand, at the ministry level, they're supposed to be taking care of food safety."
The conflict may explain how widespread practices like adding melamine to animal feed can continue to take place despite the publicity attached to national food safety scandals.
"There are times when the local official may be a little more tolerant or discerning about things because he or she doesn't want to be seen as somehow blocking local economic development," Martin said.