- The Washington Times - Friday, July 13, 2007

BEIJING — A system to monitor food safety will go into effect during test events for the 2008 Beijing Olympics next month, a government watchdog announced yesterday, even as a TV station aired an undercover investigation showing how shredded cardboard was used as a filling in steamed buns.

The discovery of the tainted buns highlights the country’s perennial problems with food safety despite government efforts to improve the situation. Countless small, often illegally run operations exist across China and make money cutting corners using inexpensive ingredients or unsavory substitutes.

In the report aired Wednesday night, China Central Television showed a shirtless, shorts-clad bun maker in Beijing using cardboard picked up off the street to stuff his steamed buns.

A hidden camera followed the man into a ramshackle building where steamers were filled with the fluffy white buns, called baozi, traditionally stuffed with minced pork.

It showed how cardboard was first soaked to a pulp in a plastic basin of caustic soda — a chemical base commonly used in manufacturing paper and soap — then chopped into tiny morsels with a cleaver. Fatty pork and powdered seasoning were stirred in as flavoring and the concoction was stuffed into the buns.

“It fools the average person,” says the bun maker, whose face was not shown. “I don’t eat them myself.”

Confidence in the safety of Chinese exports has severely waned internationally as the list of products found tainted with dangerous levels of toxins and chemicals grows longer by the day.

China has taken significant steps to try to clean up its dubious product-safety record in recent days, including banning the use of a chemical found in antifreeze in the production of toothpaste and executing the former head of its drug regulation agency for taking bribes.

This week, officials vowed that the Beijing Summer Games — a source of tremendous national pride — will be part of the crackdown on unsafe food.

The new food-quality monitoring system announced yesterday will begin Aug. 8, the first in a series of 11 trials for Olympic organizers to assess their transportation systems, technology and logistics.

“There will be continuous supervision,” said the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine on its Web site. Monitoring will start from the origin of food production and continue through processing, packaging, transportation and distribution, it said.

The results, which will include details of any food-safety accidents, will be overseen by the Beijing Municipal Food Safety Office. The agency did not give further details and a man who answered the telephone at the food safety office refused to give any information or his name.

Earlier this week, China announced it was taking steps to ensure that athletes’ food is safe and free of substances that could trigger a positive result in tests for banned performance-enhancing drugs.

China’s military, which boasts the world’s largest standing army, has also taken note of food safety issues and ordered better monitoring at mess halls, the official Xinhua News Agency reported, citing a circular from the People’s Liberation Army General Logistics Department.

All units must monitor food supply from purchase to processing and ban the use of fake or substandard products, the circular said. Unsafe food can affect combat readiness, it said.

The State Food and Drug Administration announced stricter rules for approving new medicines Wednesday, a day after the agency’s former head, Zheng Xiaoyu, was executed for taking bribes and gifts in exchange for letting substandard and fake products into the domestic market. One, an antibiotic, has been blamed for at least 10 deaths.

Starting Oct. 1, the drug registration and approval process will be made transparent to curb power abuse and corruption, said Wu Zhen, the agency’s deputy chief, in the state-run China Daily newspaper.

A special panel will approve new drugs instead of a single person or department and local watchdogs will be authorized to conduct preliminary approval procedures — unlike before, when power was centralized, Mr. Wu said.

Companies that provide false information or samples will not be allowed to apply for drug approval for up to three years, and the food and drug agency will make surprise spot checks on drug producers, he said.

“Transparency is the enemy of corruption,” Mr. Wu said.

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