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Chinese premier calls product safety 'urgent task'

Saturday, July 28, 2007

BEIJING -- China's premier ordered increased vigilance over food and drug safety Friday as the Cabinet announced a new regulation that mandates stronger supervision and outlines hefty punishments for makers of dangerous goods.

The twin actions highlighted the leadership's focus on winning back international confidence in its exports, which have been found to contain potentially dangerous levels of chemicals and toxins.

"Food safety and product quality should be our top priority," Premier Wen Jiabao was quoted as saying on the government's Web site. "It is not only an urgent task, but an arduous and long-term task."

Wen is the highest-ranking leader to address the issue since global alarm was triggered earlier this year, when a pet food ingredient from China was linked to the deaths of cats and dogs in North America.

Since then, a slew of exports -- from toothpaste to tires to seafood -- have been recalled or rejected around the world.

Chinese officials, initially reluctant to acknowledge the problem, have vowed more stringent surveillance and a crackdown on the country's countless small, unregulated producers, the heart of China's ongoing product safety woes.

Meanwhile, the State Council, China's Cabinet, introduced a new regulation that addresses the responsibilities of local governments and lays out fines for producers of dangerous goods.

A draft of the regulation was passed Wednesday and approved by the council a day later, an unusually swift passage that again underscores Beijing's concern. On Friday, it was posted on the government Web site.

"Quality concerns the people," Wen said at a national conference on product safety. "It also concerns the image of the country."

The regulation, effective immediately, applies to food, agricultural products and pharmaceutical drugs.

It said that manufacturers should be responsible and recall potentially dangerous products. It also detailed fines of up to 20 times the value of income made from the goods.

Cooperation between various government agencies should be improved, the regulation said. Currently, the responsibility for product safety is split among at least six agencies, including those that handle health, agriculture and commerce. The lines of authority are ill-defined, and different bodies oversee different laws.

Police arrested 15 members of a gang that sold fake rabies vaccine and blood protein in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang, the official Xinhua News Agency said in the latest in a string of such announcements.

The drugs were counterfeits of 67 types of pharmaceuticals, it said, citing the provincial public security department. Bogus products seized by agents included 10,000 doses of rabies vaccine, 20,250 bottles of a medication used to treat heart disease and 211 bottles of blood protein, Xinhua said.

The former head of China's Food and Drug Administration was executed two weeks ago after he was convicted of taking bribes and gifts in exchange for approving substandard medications for the domestic market, including an antibiotic blamed in the deaths of at least 10 people.

Wen also emphasized the need for stricter export controls by manufacturers and officials to "uphold the good image of Chinese products."

Among the measures he brought up were the need for exporters to meet the standards of importing countries and pass quarantine inspections. He also said there needs to be better record-keeping of good and bad companies, which should be blacklisted for violations.

Wen said that the Chinese government would like to strengthen exchanges and cooperation with other countries on the issue.

"The international community faces the common task of promoting product quality and food safety," he said. "We suggest that we solve the issue through dialogue, negotiations and investigations."

During a visit earlier this week, the European Union's consumer chief urged China to be more open about its actions with makers of goods that are recalled in Europe. Next week, American officials will come to Beijing to discuss the safety of Chinese seafood exports.

"We understand good product quality is the most persuasive argument," said Wen. "We will not evade the problems, but we oppose biased media reports, trade protectionism and discrimination."


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