Following a number of high-profile scares and widespread concern in markets importing food products from China, reform of the country's outdated food safety legislation had become a pressing priority. However, writes Dominique Patton, the new draft law, published by the National People's Congress (NPC) last month, has attracted criticism from food companies.

A new draft food safety law has been published in China, just as importers step up their own checks on Chinese food. But while it is a step in the right direction, the law is unlikely to make importers' controls any less necessary, say industry experts.

The law, published on the website of the National People's Congress (NPC), China's parliament, on 20 April, is already a second version of a draft law issued last year. It came in the midst of growing international criticism of China's food safety standards, particularly from the US where pet deaths were blamed on an adulterated ingredient in pet food and numerous shipments of seafood were blocked because of antibiotic residues.

New regulation was seen as a timely response to the mounting calls for improving standards. China was anyway due an overhaul of its safety regulations, says Shen Chi, secretary general of the China Food Industry Association. The current Food Hygiene law came into force in the 1980s and fails to address the many new issues and problems that have emerged since then.

Yet neither last year's proposed law, sent back for a re-write after food industry criticism, nor this month's new draft offers much prospect for improvement, says James Rice, vice president and China country manager at Tyson Foods.

The new draft proposes to introduce national food safety standards across a range of areas, including food contaminants such as pesticides, veterinary drugs and heavy metals, as well as additives, labelling, and requirements for safe food processing and transport. It also calls for a committee of experts to oversee a new system for assessing food safety risk analysis and sets out rules for companies seeking to gain the compulsory permit for food production.

Finally, the law details the level of fines that can be applied to specific offences, including recourse to criminal punishment such as life imprisonment for the most severe cases. In some areas, producers of substandard products have an option to avoid a fine through a voluntary recall.

The World Health Organization's China representative Dr Hans Troedsson says the law "embodies the general principles and requirements of a modern food law", welcoming in particular the food safety risk monitoring and assessment system and move towards setting up a food recall process.

But many in the industry have been critical. "I don't think this fills any of the holes in the current law," Rice tells just-food. "It relies heavily on fines but you can't fine your way to quality."

The fines go up to CNY200,000 (US$28,620) and managers of companies that sell life-threatening food products would be punished under China's criminal law. But Rice says that such a threat is unlikely to make a big difference. "Fines depend on you catching the offender but quality should be a continuous management process." Rice also notes that meat processing plants in the US have a USDA inspector surveying production full-time. In China, only spot checks are carried out. Interestingly, the FDA plans to open an office in China to monitor food exports to the US more closely.

Food industry representatives also suggest the use of sophisticated technology, provided for in the new law, is no guarantee of higher quality. An electronic food-monitoring code was established in a resolution at the end of last year and has been incorporated into the new draft food safety law. Indeed, it will be brought into force next year, whether the food safety law goes ahead or not.

One regulatory affairs manager at a multinational food company who does not wish to be named says the system, comparable to RFID (radio-frequency identification), is virtually useless in its impact on food safety. "This code only applies to finished products and has nothing to do with the ingredients, processing or quality control system. We think it will be very little use to food safety, if not useless."

Shen agrees. "Most companies don't think it will be effective. Food safety problems usually occur in the raw material purchasing process and the production phase. But the information in the electric monitoring code is just a repeat of what the label contains, mainly the production date, sell-by date, where it's made and things like that. I think it's a great waste of money."

Implementing the proposed system could cost RMB200,000 per production line, representing around CNY1m to a major corporation. Rice suggests the proposed use of RFID is typical of China's enthusiasm for adopting the latest technology and most modern processes. However, he says regulators should instead be talking to leading food companies to find out how to implement a comprehensive quality management programme. "Some open forums for the industry on this issue would be great," Rice says.

Many of the smaller players in China's food industry need educating on the basic principles of food safety, Rice adds. China has a huge, fragmented food processing industry that includes both large, modern companies producing high quality products and small businesses using basic processing.

Other food safety problems originate with the country's millions of small farmers, typically uneducated about sophisticated supply chains and modern quality requirements. Yet the draft food safety law lacks oversight of the agricultural sector, Dr Troedsson notes.

"A basic food safety law should have as its scope all stages of the production, processing and distribution of food from the farm to final consumer," Troedsson says. "However, the current draft's scope does not cover the quality and safety management of agriculture-originated primary products for consumption - this is covered by the Agricultural Quality and Safety Law."

While few in the industry are happy with the new draft, Wang Hai, a well-known champion of consumer rights in China, says the clauses allowing for consumer compensation will boost food safety. "Government supervision is not enough to monitor food safety," Wang Hai says. "The consumer also plays an important role and this clause on compensation will stimulate them to alert authorities to problems."

Meanwhile, the food industry is hopeful that its issues with the tracking code can at least be taken into account. Thanks to a new initiative in China, the law has been made public and the NPC will receive comments until 20 May. China modified its new contract labour law following public comments. It could do the same with the food safety regulation. Shen says: "We hope the Government will carefully listen to our voices and adjust this law."