Food safety in China has been placed centre stage this week as the authorities in Beijing once again look to ensure the security of the country’s food supply. The challenge has been highlighted by numerous safety scares and there are safety issues with Chinese produced food from farm to fork. But, in such an extensive and segmented market, can regulators hope to overhaul food production practices at every point down the supply chain? Dominique Patton reports.

China has released an action plan to improve food safety after fresh alerts in recent months showed that the issue remains a major problem.

Last month, officials in central China reported finding several tonnes of cow peas from Hainan tainted with a toxic pesticide. Earlier this year, dairy products were found containing melamine, the chemical linked to infant deaths in a 2008 scandal.

China launched a major crackdown on the dairy processing sector following the melamine crisis. It also published a new food safety law last year.

However, with melamine again turning up in dairy products, questions remain over the Chinese government’s ability to ensure food safety.

Shuwei Chen, vice-president of Beijing Orient Agribusiness Consulting, tells just-food that China’s food safety law, in force since last June, has changed little.

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By GlobalData

“There are still many missing safety standards,” he suggests.

This week, the State Council, China’s cabinet, unveiled a two-year plan to attempt once again to improve food safety.

The State Council said on its website that it wants to clean up the country’s overlapping standards and use international standards as a reference for the implementation of new ones.

Among the 11 points of action are calls to amend regulations on adding non-food substances to food and better enforcement of tests for pesticide residues on fresh produce and seafood.

Beijing also wants to “increase testing of high-risk foods, especially dairy products” and set up a national risk monitoring system.

These moves in particular could make a significant difference to safety standards throughout the country, Chen acknowledges.

The Council’s notice suggests Beijing is not satisfied with recent measures to improve food safety,  observes Roger Somerville, a government relations expert at the Beijing office of consultancy APCO Worldwide.

“They’re trying to finally get this right,” he says.

Somerville predicts that officials at all levels will be under pressure to respond to the Council’s plan and food companies can expect an “increasingly cautious” approach to safety.

“When you see something like this coming from such a high level, and which simply reiterates many of the requirements of the food safety law itself, you can expect to see action by officials,” Somerville says.

So, with China’s top brass now insisting on more stringent regulation of food safety controls, it seems likely that the industry will see a trickle-down effect that will result in the increased implementation of national standards at a regional and local level. But will it be enough?