China's regulatory standards chief pledged Wednesday to update and boost enforcement of food safety rules as the country faces intense international pressure for exporting unsafe products, from tainted pet food to popular children's toys manufactured with lead paint.
Chinese-made toothpaste has been rejected by several countries from Latin America to Asia, while Chinese wheat gluten tainted with the chemical melamine was blamed for dog and cat deaths in North America.
Other products turned away by U.S. inspectors include toxic monkfish, frozen eel and juice made with unsafe color additives.
"China will speed up revisions to national and industry standards on farm produce and processed food products," Liu Pingjun, chief of the National Standardization Management Commission, said in a statement posted Wednesday on the Web site of the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine.
The move comes as China is battling international criticism over the safety of its food and products ahead of next summer's Olympic Games to be held in Beijing. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission last week announced a voluntary recall of dozens of Thomas & Friends Wooden Railway Toys and cautioned consumers to immediately toss them.
Some of the wildly popular toy train sets — a spinoff from the British television series for youngsters — were manufactured in southern China and contained potentially poisonous lead paint.
Liu said China had 1,965 national food safety standards at the end of 2006, 634 of which were mandatory, but that "the standards were on average 12 years old."
He said the goal was to ensure that domestic standards complied with international ones and that none of them were more than 4-1/2 years old.
Liu did not say what was wrong with the current standards or how they differed from international ones.
The backlash against tainted Chinese exports has forced the government onto the offensive. It recently highlighted at least four American products as unsafe or not up to Chinese safety standards.
At the same time, safety officials have urged better surveillance at all levels and promised to set up a food recall system, the country's first, by year's end.
Last week, the government organized a rare visit by more than 100 foreign and domestic reporters to a food safety lab and storehouse where bogus goods from chewing gum to soy sauce were stacked on shelves and arrayed in rows.
Reports of food poisonings or tainted food are almost daily occurrences in China. In the latest food safety scare, a company was ordered to stop production after it was found to be repackaging the filling from two-year-old rice dumplings.
Officials in east China's Anhui province ordered a recall of all "zongzi" — a traditional snack made of glutinous rice and other fillings usually wrapped in bamboo leaves — made by the manufacturer, Wan Maomao Frozen Food Co. There were no reports of anyone falling ill from eating the dumplings.
Calls to the number listed for Wan Maomao Frozen Foods rang unanswered Tuesday.
Zongzi are traditionally eaten during the Dragon Boat festival each June, and last week the national quality inspection administration said 10 percent of rice dumplings made by 133 producers nationwide had failed tests because they contained excessive amounts of food additives.
The tests showed that the leaves contained high amounts of copper sulfate or copper chloride, normally used to make the leaves bright green.
In addition to the tainted food problems, 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.