03/02/2009, 00.00
CHINA
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Chinese health minister: food safety situation "grim"

A law has been approved that raises quality standards and controls on food. But the minister emphasizes that the effective application of these must be verified. Beijing is seeking to restore public trust after the melamine-contaminated milk scandal. But those harmed are unable to obtain compensation.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) - "At present, China's food security situation remains grim with high risks and contradictions." This is the official comment from the health minister, in a document released to the press after the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, the country's highest legislative body, approved a new law on February 28.

The law, which goes into effect next June 1, raises food quality standards and introduces greater controls, to better supervise an excessively fragmentary situation that did not prevent serious adulteration. Legal sanctions and penalties have been increased for producers and managers. The country is still in shock over the scandal of melamine-tainted milk that exploded in September, with at least 6 infants dead and about 300,000 with kidney problems. Melamine has a chemical composition similar to protein, and makes foods low in protein seem more nutritious. But it is poisonous to human beings. In January, two people were condemned to death for producing or selling adulterated milk, and a life sentence was given to the head of Sanlu, the dairy company most seriously implicated, which has gone bankrupt.

Chen Xiaohong, vice minister of health charged with food safety, says that "the big reason for the new law is that the Sanlu incident drove home the severity of the problem. It made us realise that we need to strengthen oversight and regulatory systems."

Public opinion has been enraged, in part because the country has been shaken for years by a series of scandals involving unsafe toothpaste, drugs, toys, seafood and pet food. In October of 2007, the government approved a new law for food safety, which events have shown to be insufficient.

Melamine has also been found in many exported Chinese dairy products, prompting suspicion in the entire industry.

The people are also infuriated over the difficulty in obtaining adequate compensation for the serious harm caused to newborns. Today, the attorney Li Jinglin said that a group of 54 people, whose children became seriously ill after consuming melamine-contaminated milk, have presented a request for damages of 8 million yuan (about 800,000 euros) against the producer Qingdao Shengyuan Dairy Co. Ltd. But it is not known whether the court in Qingdao will admit the case. Many courts have declared similar requests "inadmissible" for reasons that appear to be fabricated, like the need to wait for the results of official investigations.

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