China scrambles to salvage reputation amid milk scandal

BEIJING (AFP) — China announced an ambitious programme to improve food safety Thursday as it scrambled to salvage its reputation amid a scandal over tainted milk that has sickened 53,000 babies and killed four.

The government has set up working groups in nearly every single province, and has embarked on a sweeping drive to set up a series of new food testing centres and replace outdated equipment, officials said.

"Our quality inspection authorities are required to establish nearly 400 product testing centres within the next two years, and 80 of these will be food testing centres," said Hou Linglin, a senior official at the quality watchdog.

Hou was speaking at a food safety conference in Beijing after China and many of its trading partners were rattled by revelations that milk powder and other Chinese-made dairy products contained melamine.

Melamine is mainly used for making plastic but when added to milk, it can make it appear richer in protein.

Hou told his audience at the Beijing conference that a new food safety infrastructure was sorely needed.

"China is a large food-producing country, and the number of food items needed to be tested is growing very fast," he said.

"Although the central and local governments have increased their investment every year, currently more than 50 percent of the equipment has been used for over seven years, and is too old to be upgraded."

Meanwhile, the agriculture ministry said 29 provincial areas nationwide had set up special working groups to regulate the dairy product market, according to Xinhua news agency.

Local governments also promised subsidies for dairy farmers, in a bid to reduce the cost of feeding cows, Xinhua said.

For example, farmers in north China's Shanxi province would get a daily subsidy of up to 18 yuan (2.6 dollars) per cow in "major milk-producing cities and counties," according to the agency.

However, for all Beijing's efforts, considerable damage has already been done to the "Made in China" brand, with the milk scandal following in the wake of other scares over unsafe products from Asia's main exporting nation.

"It greatly influences people's buying decisions. You have a kind of repeat of incidents," said Jim Cramer, an official from the Oregon state Department of Agriculture in the United States.

"It does shake the confidence of people within their own nation and obviously internationally, in the US," he told AFP on the sidelines of the food safety conference.

South Korea became the most recent country to ban the import of all products containing Chinese powdered milk after discovering the harmful chemical melamine in some snacks, officials said Thursday.

The Korea Food and Drug Administration said in a statement the ban took effect immediately after it found melamine in Chinese-made "Misarang Custard" cakes and "Milk Rusk" biscuits.

More than a dozen countries have now ordered such bans or taken other steps to curb consumption. So far, the only four cases outside mainland China of children falling ill through tainted milk have been reported in Hong Kong.