By: Camille Brewer, M.S., R.D.
An important message came through loud and clear during FDA’s whirlwind visit to China this month: China is determined to strengthen its food safety system. I had not visited China in nearly 10 years and I was struck by the extraordinary progress in the cities we visited. The towering skyscrapers, tree-lined boulevards, and the obvious signs of a rising middle class demonstrate the reality of an economy that has grown by leaps and bounds. That growth has led to rising consumer expectations, and China is clearly working hard to meet consumer and global expectations for safe food.
This message was repeated in meeting after meeting that Mike Taylor, Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine, and I had with Chinese officials. We saw a clear recognition of the scope and complexity of the challenge as well as a resolve—indeed, an enthusiasm—to take on the challenges head-on, and develop a modern, effective, and efficient food safety system.
Make no mistake: this will not be easy for China. It has considerable catching up to do in the science and daily practice of food safety and in its legal system. But the enthusiasm and commitment we saw seems real, and is backed up by action.
China is now implementing its first comprehensive food safety law, which established a Food Safety Committee to oversee all ministries responsible for food safety. The law also calls for the establishment of a national center to focus on risk assessment and risk monitoring to strengthen the scientific underpinnings of food safety regulations.
Earlier this year, China issued a five-year plan for national food safety supervision. The plan directs the Food Safety Committee and its working office to oversee improvements intended to strengthen China’s food safety regulatory system, emergency response capabilities, supply chain management, surveillance systems, standard-setting activities, and third-party testing. It also calls for improved risk communication and interagency coordination among regulators at central, provincial, and local levels. This plan is testimony to the resolve of the Chinese government to elevate the importance of food safety.
FDA has been working very closely with China for some time to enhance cooperation and address food safety issues of concern. Today, FDA and Chinese food safety authorities renewed an agreement originally signed in 2007. Under the agreement, FDA has helped China to strengthen its regulatory system and better understand FDA’s food safety requirements. This cooperation was made much easier when FDA established offices in China in 2008, enabling us to dramatically increase our inspections and conduct workshops for Chinese government and industry representatives.
On our trip, we also noticed increased consumer interest in food safety. We met with a professor and blogger from China Agricultural University who emphasized Chinese consumers’ concern about economic fraud. A representative from the Shanghai State FDA and Shanghai Food Safety Committee told us that they have established a consolidated consumer hotline for food safety concerns.
This consumer focus dovetailed well with the presentation made by Mike Taylor at the China International Food Safety and Quality Conference in Shanghai. He noted that consumer confidence in the food supply is an important goal, and what is needed to improve food safety is also what is needed to strengthen consumer confidence in the food they eat. That’s an industry commitment to food safety, credible and effective government oversight, public-private collaboration and partnership, and transparency on the part of industry and government.
He noted that countries other than China are pursuing similar food safety initiatives. In addition to the United States, which is implementing the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, the Canadian Senate recently passed the Safe Food for Canadians Act, and the Dominican Republic, Madagascar and Vietnam are among countries pursuing modernized food safety laws.
During our trip, we also met with representatives of multinational corporations doing business in China and visited a canned food facility in operation in the Huairou District, a suburb of Beijing.
We know there is still a lot of work ahead to improve food safety worldwide, and efforts by our trading partners must be combined with strong oversight by U.S.government agencies. The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act gives us new tools to improve that oversight, so the elements that are necessary to improve both food safety and consumer confidence are coming together.
The speech presented by Mike Taylor can be accessed at the following link: http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodSafety/FSMA/ucm326870.htm.
The text of the 2007 agreement, which was officially renewed on December 11, 2012, is available at: http://www.fda.gov/InternationalPrograms/Agreements/MemorandaofUnderstanding/ucm107557.htm
Camille Brewer is Director of International Affairs at FDA’s Office of Foods and Veterinary Medicine