People think food to be the most important thing, goes a Chinese saying. Literally, it means people place food as high as the sky.
No wonder, food safety is the concern of almost two-thirds of the people in China (65 percent, shows a State Food and Drug Administration survey conducted last month). Perhaps, their fear was heightened by last year's food-safety scares: carcinogens in fish, poisonous additives in meat, contaminated eggs and bird flu.
Premier Wen Jiabao shares their worry. In fact, he told the ongoing National People's Congress (NPC) annual session on March 5 that China's food safety was still not satisfactory. Delivering the Government Work Report, he urged governments at all levels to ensure safe food for the people.
Some NPC deputies and Chinese People's Political Consultative Committee (CPPCC) members, too, have raised motions and submitted proposals on food safety problems and their possible solutions.
Production, sale and transportation are the stages where food products can be contaminated. Unfortunately, none of the three stages in China is free of problems, says CPPCC member Chen Zhizhe, of Fujian's Xiehe Hospital.
Corroborating Chen Zhizhe, another CPPCC member Chen Wanzhi, of Chongqing University, says pesticide residue in plants and fruits and chemical residue in cattle, pigs and seafood pose a threat to human health. Some cattle are fed hormone and additives for "leaner and better quality meat" increasing the chances of contamination, and environmental pollution is harming plants and animals.
There's a high chance of food getting contaminated during processing or sale. Nearly 1 million factories, 70 percent of them small workshops with fewer than 10 employees, are in the processing business or sales today, says Chen Wanzhi. This has made food safety a real big concern.
But even safe food can be contaminated during transportation, he warns. Among the 1,000 national safety benchmarks, only about 100 are on transportation. Poor packing and deficient logistics can make some food products rot while being transported.
Who is in charge of solving these problems? The answer may surprise many because China has about 10 government departments overseeing food safety, each with specific functions. The agriculture department oversees the processing of agriculture products, the quality inspection department checks food production, the department of industry and commerce is in charge of transport, the hygienic department supervises the catering sector, and so on.
China's food safety supervision is a big net that stretches from farmers and their fields to restaurant tables. But products such as duck eggs with red sudan dye and meat with banned chemical additives still escape the net, as they did last year.
Most deputies and members attribute the failure to the overlapping functions of the departments in charge of food safety. The result: many consumers don't even know which department they should complain to when they encounter contaminated food or other scares.
Besides, food crises are usually emergency cases needing quick cooperation among all or some of the departments. But what happens is that a department focuses on its part of the responsibility without bothering to coordinate with the others. This, in more ways than one, hampers the government's response to emergencies, says another CPPCC member Chen Shouyi.
How then can we resolve the issue? Almost all the NPC deputies and CPPCC members suggest revising the food safety law, which was implemented in 1995.
The law it seems is behind the times, too. For example, it is aimed at preventing "contamination and elements harmful to humans". But human health suffers not only due to contaminated food or harmful chemicals, but also because of lack of nutrition and improper intake. Food that is clean enough but lacks nutrition or is eaten improperly can also be dangerous.
In 2004, many babies died because they were fed milk powder that didn't have the required amount of protein.
Even the fine imposed on those who violate the law is not big enough to act as a deterrent, say some experts, because 50,000 yuan (,410) is the maximum that a product or company could be fined.
It seems revising the law is be the only way to overcome the crisis. In fact, preparation to do so began two years ago. But it's still not certain when the new law will be enacted.
But to the joy of many, the country's food security authorities have already taken some constructive measures to deal with the problem.
The Ministry of Commerce, for instance, issued regulations on food safety last month, and they would be enforced on May 1.
They clarify the responsibilities of the market (including wholesale and retail) in food safety supervision, and offer detailed regulations on the production and sale of food products.
The General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine has announced it will supervise additives' access to the market strictly, making it mandatory for companies to give their source and the amount used.
Since December the Ministry of Agriculture has been investigating and dealing with cases of banned pesticides and drugs used to treat animal diseases. In fact, the ministry has vowed to ban agriculture products that have harmful levels of pesticide and drug residue.
Moreover, this will be the year of crackdown for the State Administration for Industry and Commerce as it moves determinedly to prevent "food safety scares in rural areas".
The authorities have vowed to improve food quality and the order of the rural market in a year or two by setting up a supervision system with a view to the future.
Administrative enforcement of laws, self-discipline of the industry, social supervision and all round efforts of companies will be part of the new all-comprehensive system.