Vigilance in China

The Baltimore Sun

A top Chinese official yesterday declared his country's four-month-long campaign to ensure food and product safety a complete success. If only the problems of life were really like that - you see a problem, you fix it, and it stays fixed from then onward.

That Chinese official, named Pu Changcheng, is vice minister of the General Administration for Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, and we wish he had consulted Upton Sinclair's seminal novel, The Jungle, or at least looked at the title page. The Jungle described the horrible ways food was adulterated in the Chicago meat-packing plants, and although Sinclair was aiming at building a workers' paradise much the way the Chinese Communist Party has been trying to do for 59 years, what he inspired instead was the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act.

The novel was published in February 1906 and the FDA was established by Congress later that same year. American food today is much better than it was then - but to describe the government's food safety effort as a "complete success" would be laughable.

Food-borne illnesses afflict about 76 million Americans each year, killing 5,000 of them, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Has China managed to accomplish in four months what the U.S. is still struggling with after 102 years? We doubt it.

Beijing launched its crash program in August after a series of embarrassing revelations about exports of poisonous pet food and toothpaste, lead-painted toys and exploding tires. In China itself, there have been cases of fake milk powder and egg yolks laced with industrial carcinogens.

With the Olympics coming up this summer, the government ordered a crackdown on domestic suppliers who, in a society not really attuned to the rule of law, had easily found their way around regulations. Yesterday, Mr. Pu said the export licenses of 600 toymakers had been yanked, and that the government has successfully curbed the use of "nonfood materials" and "recycled food."

That's good to hear, if not exactly reassuring. Mr. Pu also tempered his boasting a bit with the acknowledgment that the thousands of small food producers in China remain difficult to regulate. Still, his pronouncement carried with it a distinct aroma of self-congratulation. The new attention to quality is good, no doubt about it. But the evident satisfaction with a job well done is not. The job is never done.

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