The Beijing Ministry of Commerce (MOC) Market Circulation And Adjustment Department has announced that it will establish a digital monitoring system for agricultural food products to ensure food sanitation and safety.

There are two major reasons for this: firstly to cut the number of food poisoning cases in China, which continue to cause alarm, and secondly to avoid technical trade barriers set by other countries. Major problems remain with high levels of insecticide residue on fruit and vegetables and fake products. The new system will also increase food safety at slaughterhouses, wholesale and retail markets. Along with the new system will go a blacklist of unsafe enterprises that will reportedly be published on the Internet.

China has over 200 laws, regulations or standards on food safety at national or regional levels, including two sets of new criteria on the wholesale and retail market of agricultural and related products. In the next five years a further 500 criteria on food processing and circulation will be introduced while the government is looking to phase out the traditional agricultural markets in cities and develop supermarket retailing.

This may be some comfort to foreign buyers of Chinese food who like the price but not always the sanitary conditions. China sold US$13.6bn worth of food and live animals worldwide in the first ten months of 2003, mostly fishery products, vegetables, fruit, meat and meat products, according to Chinese Customs.

As far as domestic poisoning goes, the press continues to be full of cases. The most recent involved 78 primary school children who were poisoned after drinking soy milk and eating cake in the southern Chinese town of Beihai. This was the fourth case of food poisoning at a Chinese school in the last two months - in the last two cases, 85 children were poisoned and one died.

Cases of food poisoning have become increasingly frequent in China due to poor food hygiene and a string of deliberate contamination cases involving rat poison and pesticides.