It could be seen as both ironic and tragically timely that Beijing was the setting for an international food safety conference recently last month. Attending the China International Food Safety & Quality Conference was Jørgen Schlundt, director of the department of Food Safety, Zoonoses and Foodborne Diseases at the World Health Organization (WHO). Dominique Patton spoke with him about the recent crisis and moves within and without China to improve its food safety systems.

just-food: Last year melamine was linked to the deaths of hundreds of pets in the US. Why is melamine once again at the centre of a major scandal?

Jørgen Schlundt: You should ask the criminals about that. This is an event where criminals have found a way of getting more money for the milk from the primary production sector by putting water in the milk and then adding melamine to disguise that the protein level goes down. So it's a big scam to make more money.

j-f: Couldn't anything have been done to stop it?

Schlundt: You can always look back and say you could have done things differently but you don't normally test for melamine in raw milk because normally it's not there. It's only if somebody adds it deliberately. Of course we can learn from this event to have better systems. There might have been other ways you could have found out that the water had been added to the milk. You could look into the fat content because that would also be diluted but milk from different cows can have very different fat content. So maybe that would not have been so easy.

j-f: So are you saying that this incident was a one-off? And that it could have happened anywhere?

Schlundt: In principle it could have happened anywhere, yes. If somebody wants to deliberately do something like that they could have done it in many countries. It's difficult to know whether in country A it would have been found out before country B. We can't say that.

j-f: Do you see the milk crisis as a step back for China?

Schlundt: Of course it will be seen as a step back. But I would say that in our interaction with the Ministry of Health we have seen a leap forward because they have been extremely open and given us answers within 12 hours. It seems that at least in that sense they have changed the central system and realised that the only right thing is to go out with information as soon as they have it. That is not like the old days in China and indeed many other countries.

That doesn't take away the three dead children [now four] and 40,000 [now 50,000] affected infants. But you can worsen the crisis so much when you haven't communicated.

j-f: But it now appears that the local authorities and Sanlu knew about the contamination quite a long time ago. How do you feel about that?

Schlundt: It concerns us. Whenever there is delay in reporting anything it concerns us. This was not handled in the right way. Why that would happen we would be extremely interested in knowing because that would enable the Chinese authorities to improve the system. It would also enable us to take these experiences and give them to other countries so that they can improve their systems.

j-f: Nevertheless, it seems that one of the things China needs to work on is developing a reporting system. Would you agree?

Schlundt: They need to work on a number of things and we have worked with China since 2005. There has been dedicated work from the Chinese and also support from other member states and the WHO in analysing the present system and suggesting a better way forward.

One of the problems is that, like many other countries, you have split responsibility between a number of different actors and that almost always leads to problems. So if you look at the food production chain and you have five or six different ministries involved in different parts of that chain, then often the communication between them is not perfect.

j-f: Will this complicated structure be simplified under the new food law?

Schlundt: There will be fewer [ministries involved] but there will still be several. Just like there is in a number of countries. In the US you have a split between USDA [US Department of Agriculture] and FDA [Federal Drug Administration] and to some degree CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention].

j-f: This safety scare is likely to cause major concerns among consumers around the world about food from China. Are they right to be worried?

Schlundt: We have to remind everyone that no country's food safety system is perfect and no country's food is perfect. We have disease caused by food in every country. In the US, one third of the population every year get a microbiological foodborne disease and 5,000 people die every year from microbial contamination which is in most cases preventable.

Jørgen Schlundt, director of the department of Food Safety, Zoonoses and Foodborne Diseases at the World Health Organization

j-f: So can governments and industry in other countries trust what is being imported from China? Do they need to step up their testing regimes?

Schlundt: You cannot test safety into food. This is a truth that has been recognised in our area for the last 15 to 20 years. Consumers will always believe that if you're testing more, it will be double the safety. This is not correct. The amount of food that passes borders all the time is mind-boggling. Even in the US, a huge amount of food goes in untested. The solution is not testing more. You should test sensibly, where it is important to test and when, instead of testing senselessly, which is what many countries have done in the past.

Also they should focus on going to the primary production sites and introducing systems there that improve safety. For instance, when there was contamination of raspberries in Guatemala, instead of just closing the border they [US officials] went to Guatemala and helped them implement a system so they could export to the US again. That is what developed countries should do, and it's what they're supposed to do under the WTO agreement.

j-f: The US FDA is opening offices in China. Will this safety scare over melamine contamination trigger more of this kind of co-operation?

Schlundt: There are already a number of countries trying to help China and I expect there to be more of this. That's clearly a positive move because you can always use additional expertise. WHO is also looking into putting an additional food safety person into the country office in China. That would enable the Chinese authorities to very quickly link up to expertise in other countries through us when it is needed. Many times in the past that process was way too slow.

j-f: What about changes within China? Will this event have an impact on food safety?

Schlundt: Hopefully it will push the process [of reforming China's food safety system] along a bit faster. That has also happened in other countries [after major scandals]; suddenly there is political pressure from the highest level and then things happen.

j-f: Aside from changing the food laws here, how does China instil a sense of business ethics and social responsibility into its industry?

Schlundt: You can't regulate that. That's happening slowly. The really forward-looking companies will know that if consumers find out they act in bad ways they will not buy their products. In the end the companies that do the right thing will come out on top. I don't see any reason why in China this should be any different than any other country in the world.