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Food Product Inspection Waivers Revoked

09-18 14:15 Caijing Magazine

A scandal triggered by toxins in baby milk prompted a government food safety watchdog to cancel all inspection exemptions.

By staff reporter Yang Binbin

As a contaminated baby formula scandal widens in China, the nation's consumer safety watchdog has canceled all product inspection exemptions for food processing companies.

The government's State Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ) said in a September 17 statement that "considering the particular characteristics of food products and the complex causes of food safety problems, AQSIQ has decided to cancel previous inspection exemptions for food producers."

The move is designed "to enhance supervision of food producers, ensure food safety, and protect consumer interests," the statement said.

AQSIQ earlier revoked a safety inspection exemption for Shijiazhuang-based Sanlu Group, a milk products company whose powdered baby formula has been blamed for sickening thousands of children across the country.

So far, authorities have linked the deaths of three babies to milk powder tainted with the chemical melamine. Another 6,200 babies contracted kidney ailments after drinking the formula.

Caijing learned that inspection exemptions have been issued nationwide to 1,489 companies for various products. The waiver system has been in place for more than eight years.

The waivers began after the State Council, China's cabinet, proposed letting certain companies apply for safety inspection exemptions. Products with long records of proven quality and large market shares could be eligible, according to the original State Council circular, although exempted companies first would have to adopt standards that met or exceeded national or international levels, and pass three consecutive inspections for national or provincial quality standards.

The safety watchdog backed the new rule to ease the burden for companies that otherwise would undergo repeated inspections. The final rule, which took effect in August 2000, granted three-year exemptions, although it said state inspectors could make annual spot checks.

But the exemption system became a target of criticism after China's Ministry of Health announced September 11 that Sanlu baby formula was suspected of being laced with melamine, a chemical that boosts perceived protein levels in milk but can cause kidney disease in humans.

A subsequent nationwide investigation found traces melamine in milk powder products sold by 22 companies across the country.

In addition to Sanlu's formula, products found to be tainted included well-known brands sold by dairy companies Shengyuan, Guangming and Yashili, as well as Beijing Olympics sponsor Yili and Mengniu, China's largest dairy operation.

AQSIQ Director Li Changjiang said the agency would revoke all exemption qualifications as well as strip the official "China's famous brand" label from problematic products made by the 22 companies.

AQSIQ also said it is also working to amend quality standards for dairy products by targeting non-food additives, and would revise baby formula standards to add tests of poisonous substances such as melamine.
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