Chinese authorities split over antibiotic overuse

By Oscar Rousseau

- Last updated on GMT

New safety law pledges to use criminal penalties to punish food safety transgressors
New safety law pledges to use criminal penalties to punish food safety transgressors
China’s top regulator for food safety has said overuse of antibiotics is a “prominent problem” for the country’s meat industry and has called for agriculture and meat processors to do more to reduce traces of antibiotics. 

The China Food & Drug Administration (CFDA) claimed 3.8% of meat tested by its officers in 2015 contained excessive samples of “banned substances​”. Releasing the data at a recent press conference, CFDA vice-director Teng Guicai pointed to the use of banned chemicals on farms, but also in the storage and transportation of meat.

Teng pointed to the presence of “lean meat powder​” in meat. Chinese newspapers frequently use the term “shou rou qing​” – which translates as “lean meat powder​” to refer to compounds like clenbuterol, ractopamine and salbutamol which are intended to add muscle to pigs. Several prominent Chinese meat firms have been caught up in scandals involving the use of these substances – among them Shuanghui and the giant feed and pork conglomerate Shandong Liuhe.

But the alarm sounded at the CFDA press conference was in contrast to a far more positive tone at the agriculture ministry, which is tasked with policing the livestock sector. At a press conference in December to wrap up the year’s work, the agriculture ministry pointed to the success of its drug monitoring programme – 96% of animals tested were within the national limits for veterinary drugs, noted the ministry as proof of the low incidence of antibiotics in the industry.

Public confidence low

While the agriculture ministry has authority to test livestock for antibiotics, the CFDA is charged with testing meat products at the retail and restaurant level. Interdepartmental competition and friction is common in China’s government agencies and different bodies bring different agendas to the task of food safety. While the agriculture ministry is a keen supporter of the livestock sector, the CFDA has been given the onerous task of rebuilding public confidence in China’s domestic food processing sector.

The CFDA is also charged with enforcing China’s new food safety law and has made some high-profile interventions in recent months, including a clampdown on street food vendors in major cities like Beijing. State media prominently covered CFDA inspections of food stalls serving meat snacks at the traditional temple fairs held around the Chinese New Year.

CFDA vice-director Teng said he sought more cooperation with the ministry of agriculture to reduce use of antibiotics in meat and fish products. The CFDA has primary enforcement duties under China’s food safety law, which came into force in October 2015. But the General Administration for Quality Supervision, Inspection, and Quarantine (AQSIQ) has powers to inspect and seize food products or materials in the food processing sector – particularly if the firm is exporting products.

Criminal penalties

Styled on the Food and Drug Administration of the United States, the CFDA is also seeking to burnish its image after being elevated to a ministerial-level agency in 2013 to replace overlapping regulators as part of an effort to streamline regulation processes for food, drugs and cosmetics. CFDA head Bi Jingquan sits at the State Council (China’s cabinet) with agriculture minister Han Changfu. Bi’s predecessor Zheng Xiaoyu was executed for taking bribes from corporations in exchange for product safety approvals.

The new food safety law, however, pledges to use tough criminal penalties to punish food safety transgressors, while also using stricter standards to force unethical firms out of the food industry. Late last year the CFDA published details of extensive inspection of meat retailers around China: spreadsheets from the CFDA listing details of a list of over 20 veterinary drugs including enrofloxacin, clenbuterol, salbutamol, ractopamine. Poultry products which failed the test had excessive residues of the drugs furazolidone metabolite, furaltadone metabolites, sulfonamides and chloramphenicol according to the CFDA.

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