China Passes New Food Safety Law

19 March 2009

Grace Chen, Ai-Leen Lim

Recent scandals involving tainted foods from China have given rise to greater concerns with respect to the safety of foods manufactured or sold in China, and regulation of the food industry has become one of China’s top priorities. On February 28, 2009, the Standing Committee of the Eleventh National People’s Congress passed the new Food Safety Law, thus consolidating the various disparate regulations and standards that govern China’s food industry. The Food Hygiene Law, presently the primary law governing quality standards for China’s food industry will be superseded once the more comprehensive Food Safety Law takes effect on June 1, 2009. Although the issue of food safety has been addressed in various regulations and notices at the national and local level, this is the first time food safety has been brought to the forefront as the centrepiece of a national law, a milestone in China’s food industry.

Highlights of the changes to be brought forth by China’s new Food Safety Law are:

  • Establishment of a new Food Safety Commission by the State Council, giving it the stature of a ministry-level advisory and coordination organ, but its specific functions and authorities are yet to be determined.

  • Health, agricultural, quality supervisory, industry and commerce and food and drug supervisory authorities are tasked with handling the various regulatory aspects of the food industry in China.

  • Health Ministry has been tasked with improving monitoring and supervision of the food industry and beefing up safety standards, its specific functions include: coordinating the work of the various government authorities, conducting of food safety risk assessments, formulation of food safety standards, making food safety announcements, formulation of the qualifications of food inspection and examination organs and the inspection and examination standards and organizing the investigation of serious food safety incidents.

  • Formulation of a nationwide food safety risk monitoring and testing system to test and monitor food-borne illnesses, food pollutants and harmful substances in food.

  • Expert committee composed of medical, agricultural, food and nutrition experts will take responsibility for the tasks of monitoring and testing food safety risks.

  • Unification of the food safety standards, having experts conduct safety assessments for pesticides, fertilizers, growth regulators, veterinary drugs, animal feed, animal feed additives, etc.; requiring manufacturers of edible agricultural products using such substances to comply with such standards and regulations.

  • Instituting stringent licensing requirements for the manufacture of food and food additives, the earlier practice of granting exemptions to certain manufacturers has now been abolished.

  • Advertisements for food products must be factual; they may not include any false or exaggerated content or make any claims with respect to disease prevention or treatment functions.

  • Authorities shall conduct random inspections of food products on both regular and intermittent bases. Food samples used for such random inspections should be purchased, and the authorities may not receive any inspection fees or other payments.

  • More severe penalties against manufacturers of tainted food and food additives, including the revoking of licenses, financial penalties, liability for medical expenses and other damages, criminal charges, etc.

  • Setting up a system for recall of substandard food products.

  • Heightened focus on food additives, which have been the root of many scandals and problems plaguing China’s food industry.

Promulgation of the Food Safety Law is a step in the right direction, bringing China’s standards to a higher level, in line with its position as a rapidly developing country as it takes its position on the world stage. Whether or not this law will have a positive impact on improving the integrity and reputation of China’s food industry will depend in large part on its implementation, specifically whether the Ministry of Health can work smoothly with the Food Safety Commission and the other government authorities tasked with handling the various regulatory aspects of food safety to ensure effective regulation of the food industry in China.