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TRADE-CHINA: Safety Complaints Force Beijing to Tighten Quality Control

Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING, Aug 1 2007 (IPS) - Dogged by a plethora of reports in the foreign media highlighting problem Chinese goods and worried that product-safety recalls are spiralling into a major problem for its export juggernaut, Beijing has shifted gear to defend its battered “Made in China” reputation.

Reluctant to acknowledge the problem when it first came to light several months ago, Chinese authorities are now daily rounding up companies suspected of faulty products.

The safety crackdown on domestic producers has been accompanied by a public relations campaign, aimed at international traders.

“The Chinese government pays great attention to addressing flaws in product quality, especially the quality of food products,” Li Changjing, an official with the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, said at a specially convened press conference this month.

The government acknowledgement of existing problems makes a remarkable departure for a bureaucratic system prone to cover-ups.

When a pet-food ingredient produced in China was linked to the deaths of cats and dogs in North America in April, Beijing’s first reaction was to deny it. “The poisoning of American pets has nothing to do with China,” claimed a report in the Communist Party’s flagship newspaper the People’s Daily.

Export control officials argued that food contamination occurred both within the United States and with U.S. exports to China. “No food-inspection system is foolproof,” Li Yuanping, director-general of the Import and Export Food Safety Bureau, countered at the time.

But international worries about China’s exports have continued to mount with more and more reports about substandard and fake products coming to light. Since April, a slew of exports – including toothpaste, tyres, seafood and toys – have been recalled or rejected around the world. What is worse, mislabelled drug ingredients in Chinese exports have been blamed for killing and injuring people in Panama and Haiti.

As a result China has come under political pressure from the U.S. and the European Union, where politicians are demanding assurances about the quality and safety of Chinese exports.

After slapping controls on China’s seafood imports because of unsafe chemical residues found in farm-raised fish, the U.S. administration dispatched its health chief for talks with Chinese officials this week.

“Our U.S. regulatory agencies are concerned about what they see as an insufficient infrastructure across the board in China to assure the safety, quality and effectiveness of many products exported to the United States,” Mike Leavitt said in Beijing on Tuesday.

Leavitt’s mission to Beijing came on the heels of a visit by the head of the European Union’s consumer protection agency, Meglena Kuneva, last week.

Kuneva urged Chinese regulators to track down every producer of substandard goods and stop their exports to Europe.

China’s safety woes have not been limited to Europe and the United States. Excessive antibiotic or pesticide residue has caused bans in Japan on Chinese poultry products, frozen spinach and tea. Hong Kong blocked imports of turbot fish last year after inspectors found traces of malachite green, a possibly cancer-causing chemical used to treat fungal infections.

Last year Taiwan too banned imports of hairy crabs from China due to traces of carcinogens. In June this year, Russia’s federal agricultural authorities banned fish from China due to antibiotic contamination.

Watching the volley of safety complaints, Chinese officials have grown worried that an all-round international campaign on problem goods could lead to sanctions and hurt the country’s exports.

Exports and foreign investment are the chief engines of China’s booming economy. According to World Trade Organisation statistics, China’s total food exports reached 246 billion U.S. dollars in 2005, which is nearly eight times the 31 billion it exported in 1980.

In a dramatic display of concern, two weeks ago China executed the former head of the State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA), Zheng Xiaoyu, for accepting bribes in return for granting government approval for various medicines in 2005.

Experts say that several agencies involved in safety and quality supervision like SFDA and the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine squabble over the division of powers and tend to deny responsibility for mistakes.

In recent weeks the government has pledged to overhaul the food and drug safety regulations and announced a nationwide quality and safety inspection. This week, Beijing issued a regulation holding local governments responsible for any major food poisoning or other health threat caused by contaminated or substandard food.

Yet, while aiming to publicise its actions on safety controls, Beijing has also tried to limit future public relations fallout.

Newspapers in the capital have been warned against running negative news on food safety, even negative articles reprinted from newspapers in other regions, reported the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post this week.

Some observers are criticising foreign media for exaggerating food safety.

“All these negative reports and commentaries about -Made in China’ – it all smacks of psychological warfare,” argues Zhang Guoqing, expert on international affairs with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “It is worth reminding detractors that China’s trade surplus is a testimony to the opportunities and attraction of the Chinese economy.”

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