BEIJING – An official downplayed China's food safety woes Tuesday, saying they weren't as bad as reported, while showing off seized counterfeits from chewing gum to soy sauce that highlighted its continuing problem with fakes.
China has developed "very good, very complete methods" to regulate product safety, Li Dongsheng, vice minister for the State Administration for Industry and Commerce, told about 130 foreign and domestic reporters on a government-organized trip.
The rare visit to a food safety lab and storehouse for bogus goods came as Beijing tries to burnish its battered image amid scandals over tainted food exports.
"Yes, there are now some problems of food safety of Chinese products. However, they are not serious. We should not exaggerate those problems," Li said.
At the Beijing food lab, technicians wearing white coats tested packages of spring rolls, dumplings and other frozen foods for toxic chemicals. Others sat at computers analyzing results.
In another room, a huge variety of fake products were displayed, including Wrigley's chewing gum, Shiseido skin care products and Levi's jeans.
China's poor safety record has increasingly come under the spotlight as its goods make their way to global markets. Major buyers like the United States, Japan, and the European Union have pushed for Beijing to improve inspections.
The pressure has increased in the past few months as U.S. inspectors have banned or turned away Chinese exports including wheat gluten tainted with the chemical melamine, which has been blamed for dog and cat deaths in North America. Toxic monkfish and frozen eel and juice made with unsafe color additives have also been on the growing list of unacceptable products.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has also stopped all imports of Chinese toothpaste to test for a deadly chemical reportedly found in tubes sold in Australia, the Dominican Republic and Panama.
In response, China has appeared to have gone on the offensive, highlighting at least four American products in the past week as unsafe or not meeting Chinese safety standards. But safety officials have also urged better surveillance at all levels and promised a food recall system, the country's first, by the end of the year.
"We do believe this very important for the people," Li said. "We are very concerned about food safety in China and very concerned about protecting the rights of consumers. But we do not want to cause panic among the people."
Li said developed countries also have similar problems with food safety and insisted that China was treating the issue with concern.
"There is now largely no problem with food safety. It is an issue the people care about greatly," Li said. "So if there is a small problem, it becomes a big problem for us. So basically for now we can guarantee food safety."
Also Tuesday, state media reported that the former head of China's pharmaceutical regulator had appealed for his death sentence to be commuted.
Zheng Xiaoyu was sentenced last month for taking bribes to approve six substandard drugs, including one antibiotic that caused the deaths of at least six people. Reports said he asked for leniency, saying he had cooperated with investigators and confessed his crimes.
In other comments to reporters, Li said the government food safety procedures included a hot line set up in 1999 that has grown into a surveillance network of local groups and government bodies.
Widespread inspections of department stores, supermarkets, outdoor markets and wholesale markets have been carried out by local Administrations of Industry and Commerce, the State Council said in a statement.
It said 4.6 million inquires, complaints and reports were received last year from consumers.
The statement also said that 16,000 tons of unsafe food products were ordered withdrawn from the market in 2006. It did not give details of the products or why they were withdrawn.
According to the State Council statement, the surveillance network has also expanded to focus on consumer protection, trademark protection, food safety supervision and advertising regulations.
China has long been the world's leading source of fake medicines and drugs, illegally copied music, movies, designer clothes and other goods. U.S. officials say its exports cost legitimate producers worldwide up to $50 billion a year in lost potential sales.
On Monday, state media said authorities were investigating the widespread sale of fake blood protein to hospitals and pharmacies, a possibly life-threatening practice.