A top health official called for more integration within China's fractured food regulatory system Friday to boost its troubled safety record, while the military warned that unsafe food could undermine its combat readiness.
Vice Health Minister Wang Longde said new laws were needed to strengthen food safety supervision by coordinating the duties of competing government agencies.
"The food issue involves cooperation among many departments. This is very important," Wang said on the sidelines of a news conference in a rare high-level comment on China's attempts to regain consumer confidence.
"To solve the problem, we must make laws, we must amend laws. The purpose of this is to strengthen cooperation among government bodies and together, strengthen supervision," he said.
The lack of a centrally controlled regulatory system is considered a key defect underpinning China's perennial food and drug safety woes. Those problems are now drawing international concern as a growing number of Chinese exports are found tainted with dangerous levels of toxins and chemicals.
Responsibility is now split among at least six agencies, including the State Food and Drug Administration, the Health Ministry, the Agriculture Ministry, the Commerce Ministry, the State Administration of Industry and Commerce, and the General Administration of Quality Supervision Inspection and Quarantine.
Blurred lines of authority and divided responsibilities often enable the country's countless illegal operations to escape detection.
Wang's comments came the same day an official newspaper reported that the People's Liberation Army — the world's largest military — has ordered improved safety checks and will buy food only from suppliers who pass local government hygiene and safety tests
"To strengthen food safety is to guarantee the PLA's combat capacity," the China Daily quoted Zhou Pengjun, an official with the General Logistics Department, as saying in a front-page story.
All suppliers of food to the PLA's 2.3 million servicemen and women will have to pass safety and hygiene tests, the report said.
The stringent measures reflect ongoing worries over small or unregulated businesses who make their money by using cheap ingredients or substitutes.
A report issued Friday by the Beijing Municipal Health Inspection Institute said about 60 percent of 21,200 restaurants inspected in the Chinese capital had hygiene conditions that posed "some risk of contamination."
Another 3 percent prepared food in an environment that had "a high risk of contamination, even the possibility of causing food poisoning," the institute said.
A report released earlier this month by the World Health Organization, the Asian Development Bank and China's State Food and Drug Administration condemned the fragmentation of food regulation and "greater clarity was urgently needed."
"This lack of clearly assigned responsibility leads to a situation where no agency or authority can be properly held accountable for their action or inaction," the report said.
Also Friday, a statement posted on the Web site of the State Food and Drug Administration, or SFDA, stressed coordination at local levels. New local coordination bodies would be headed by a provincial governor or mayor of a large city.
"The organizations will play an important role in the coordination of various supervision departments," the statement quoted SFDA Director Shao Mingli as saying.
The report did not go into details on how the scheme will work.
In recent weeks, China has executed the former head of its drug regulation agency for taking bribes and banned the use of a chemical found in antifreeze in the production of toothpaste.
But although the production of toothpaste with diethylene glycol — a thickening agent in antifreeze — has been prohibited, companies still will be able to sell their current supplies domestically, an official with the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine was quoted as saying.
"The government did not advise removing the toothpaste containing the chemical on sale from shelves," the unnamed official was quoted as saying by Shanghai's Oriental Morning Post.
"Consumers are assured that those toothpaste brands are safe," said the official, who did not identify the brands.