China's top legislative body enacted a tough new food safety law Saturday, promising tougher penalties for makers of tainted products in the wake of scandals that exposed serious flaws in monitoring of the nation's food supply.
Five years in the making, the law consolidates hundreds of disparate regulations and standards covering China's 500,000 food-processing companies, said Xin Chunying, a vice-chairman of the legislative committee of the National People's Congress Standing Committee.
The law pays special attention to the issue of food additives. The issue was at the heart of last year's scandal involving melamine-tainted infant formula produced by the Sanlu dairy and more than 20 others. No additives will be allowed unless they can be proven both necessary and safe, according to the law, which goes into effect June 1.
"The Sanlu scandal exposed a loophole in the system, and that's why the new law is especially strict in this area," Xin said.
Melamine found in milk, pet food
China's government has been trying to restore confidence in the country's food supply ever since revelations in September that formula was contaminated with the industrial chemical melamine.
The tainted milk is blamed in the deaths of at least six Chinese babies and the sickening of nearly 300,000 others.
Previously, China's regulatory system had come under scrutiny after exports of pet food ingredients killed and sickened pets in North and South America. The chemical in the dangerous pet food was the same as in the milk scandal — melamine.
In response to those scandals, a draft of the food safety law was submitted for its first reading by China's legislature in December 2007.
Toughened penalties under the new law include fines, cancellation of licences and punitive damages up to 10 times the value of products implicated. Companies and individuals can also be held liable for medical and other compensation as well as face criminal charges.
The law also calls for a monitoring and supervision system, a set of national standards on food safety, severe punishment for offenders, and a food recall system. It will also create a "high-level co-ordination and guidance" body, Xin said, streamlining food regulation procedures by cutting the number of agencies involved by more than half.
China's current system of splitting food safety responsibilities among many different agencies has resulted in uneven enforcement and confusion, the UN said in a report late last year.