The Chinese parliament has adopted new legislation designed to prevent a repeat of last year's melamine-in-milk scandal, which left at least six babies dead, tens of thousands of small children sick and China's reputation for food safety in tatters.
The new food safety law, which was voted onto the statute books on 28 February and comes into effect on 1 June this year, contains provisions for enhancing monitoring and supervision of China's food industry, toughening safety standards, recalling substandard products and punishing offenders. It received almost unanimous support in the National People's Congress, winning 158 out of 165 votes.
A new state-level food safety commission will be established to oversee the food industry. Its responsibilities will include risk evaluation, the making and implementation of safety standards, and the monitoring of about 500,000 food companies across China.
According to the Xinhua news agency, Xin Chunying, deputy director of the NPC standing committee's legislative affairs commission, told a press briefing that although China had had food quality control systems in place for many years, loopholes had emerged. This was mainly due to varied standards, the illicit actions of some business people, the leniency of punishments for offenders and weaknesses in testing and monitoring procedures, she said.
China will now establish compulsory standards for food production covering a range of issues, from the use of additives to safety and nutrition labels.
Offenders will face maximum fines twice the level allowed previously. Those whose food production licences are revoked due to illegal practices will be banned from working in the food industry for five years.
Celebrities could also be forced to share responsibility for advertising of food products that are found to be unsafe. The law says all organisations and individuals who recommend substandard food products in ads will face joint liability for damages incurred.
This has been a hot topic in China where film stars, singers and other celebrities are often paid to appear in ads for food products. Several Chinese celebrities had advertised products made by the Sanlu Group, a company at the centre of the tainted dairy product scandal.