Chinese regulators announced stepped up food safety inspections yesterday ahead of the country’s biggest holiday, Lunar New Year, in continuing efforts to crack down on the poorly regulated manufacturing industry.
Inspectors will target supermarkets, restaurants and food additive producing factories in seven provinces, including Hebei, the heart of last year’s melamine-tainted milk scandal, Health Ministry spokesman Mao Qun’an said.
“We’ll seriously check for illegal substances and additives in food and will severely punish companies or individuals who violate the law,” Mao said at a news conference.
The week-long Lunar New Year holiday, also known as the Spring Festival, starts on Jan. 26 and is usually celebrated with family gatherings and sumptuous feasts.
The campaign is the latest step by China’s authorities to improve the country’s shoddy food safety record.
The manufacturing industry has been shaken by recurring scandals, including one last year where hundreds of thousands of children were sickened by milk contaminated by the industrial chemical melamine.
Authorities accuse suppliers of watering down the milk and then adding nitrogen-rich melamine to make it seem higher in protein when tested.
Mao said yesterday that the latest government figures show 296,000 babies were sickened and almost 53,000 were hospitalized. The deaths of six babies have also been linked to the scandal.
Last month, the government released a list of banned substances in an attempt to weed out the practice of augmenting food products with nonfood additives.
Among the 17 banned substances was boric acid, commonly used as an insecticide, which is mixed with noodles and meatballs to increase elasticity. Also forbidden was industrial formaldehyde and lye, used in making soap and drain cleaner and added to water used to soak some types of dried seafood to make the products appear fresher and bigger.
Various industrial dyes used to improve the appearance of food products, ranging from chili powder to tea to cooked meats, were also prohibited.
Even so, it’s an uphill task because of murky supply chains and numerous small, sometimes illegally operated establishments, which are hard to monitor.
State media has said officially there are about 500,000 food processors and 70 percent have fewer than 10 employees.