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China focuses on food safety and releases new regulations for the industry

In the past decade, Chinese consumers have been increasingly focusing on the safety and quality of food products, especially after a few highly publicized cases of adulterated products. Starting March 1, 2023 the only regulation in China that specifically addresses the general requirements for the manufacture and sales of food-related products (including food-contact materials and articles) will come into effect.

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China’s State Administration for Market Regulation (SAMR) released the Interim Measures for the Supervision and Administration of the Quality and Safety of Food-Related Products (“Interim Measures”,) developed from a draft version that was published on July 31, 2020, for comment.


Compared with the overarching Food Safety Law (FSL), the Interim Measures refine some requirements targeted at food-related products but, overall, are not significantly different from the existing laws and regulations or current practice.


Despite the growing recognition of food safety as a public health priority and as an essential requirement for food trade, food safety incidents still occur occasionally.


Although the Chinese government has developed more stringent regulatory measures, serious incidents have been recorded in the past, including unsanitary conditions in factories and contamination of food products by pathogenic microorganisms, pesticides, and heavy metals. The most famous case was the contaminated baby formula, which resulted in the death of six infants and over 50.000 hospitalizations.


For this reason, the Interim Measures list a series of food-related products that are prohibited, such as products that use raw materials and additives not conforming to food safety standards, as well as other substances that may endanger human health, or use additives beyond the scope or limitation.


Products with the content and migration of pathogenic microorganisms, pesticide residues, veterinary drug residues, biotoxins, heavy metals, and other harmful substances exceeding the limitation under food safety standards and adulterated, or fake products are also prohibited.


The list includes products that have been ordered by the government to be prohibited/phased out from the market, products that forge the origin or forge or falsely use another's factory name, address, etc. and any other products that do not conform to laws, regulations, and food safety standards.


These prohibitions generally follow the bans in the FSL on food-related products. Notably, the Interim Measures add a prohibition on products that have been ordered by the government to be prohibited/phased out from the market.


In recent years, China has tightened the management of plastic pollution and has banned the production of certain plastic items, such as ultra-thin plastic shopping bags with a thickness of less than 0.025 mm (see K&H’s 2022 Year-in-Review on China’s food packaging regulations).


The industry will need to pay closer attention to the development of China’s industrial policies that will affect the supply of food-contact plastic products, since more restrictive policies are expected in the future.


Basic Quality control requirements in the whole production process of food-related products are included in the Interim Measures list as well. These requirements are principles and do not exceed what is expected for production quality management of food-related products.


For example, the Interim Measures generally require that the manufacturer must establish product quality and safety management systems to control the production process, such as raw materials control, testing control, transportation, and delivery control, etc.


As it is in current practice, the Interim Measures affirm that high-risk food-related products, including finished packaging materials in direct contact with food, are subject to production licensing.


Compared with the draft of the Interim Measures, the final regulation excluded the requirement that manufacturers and sellers must make quality and safety commitments to the local market regulation authorities. This exclusion reduces unnecessary burden on the industry.


The Interim Measures require that the following “identification information” must be marked for a food-related product:


  • Product name

  • Name, address, and contact information of the manufacturer

  • Production date and shelf life (when applicable)

  • Standards that are followed

  • Material type and category

  • Precautions or warnings

  • Other items that must be marked as required by laws, regulations, food safety standards, and other mandatory provisions


An important aspect is to know how to provide “identification information,” which does not necessarily refer to “labelling” information. In this respect, the Chinese GB food packaging standards are more specific.


For example, GB 4806.1-2016, the General Safety Standard, regards the information on the label, the instruction manual, or the declaration of compliance all as product identification information, and therefore allows the identification information to be provided on the label, in the instruction manual, or in accompanying documentation.


The final Interim Measures states that if food safety standards have otherwise provided for the identification information, such provisions shall prevail.


Compared with the draft, the Interim Measures simplified the penalty provisions and refer to penalties under “laws and regulations,” (FSL and its implementing regulation.)


The Interim Measures impose specific penalties on two types of violations: First, on the “use” of food-related products with raw materials and additives not in compliance with food safety standards, with a fine of no more than 200,000 yuan.

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This stipulation seems to conflict with the harsher provisions set forth in the FSL, where food producers and operators who purchase or use food-related products that do not meet the food safety standards will be fined up to 10 times the value of the goods or even will have the license revoked.


Second, the Interim Measures also impose penalties on acts that do not conform to the production control system requirements (such as failure to establish and implement a product quality and safety management system), with a fine of no more than 50,000 yuan. Though the penalties do not fully align with the FSL, whether/how to impose the penalties is always at the discretion of the authorities.


When developing food safety policies, a range of factors should be considered including international regulations and accepted approaches, private sector, consumer interests and requirements, political will, and socioeconomic issues in addition to science and risk assessments.


There should be a combination of responsibility from all levels of stakeholders in the food retail sector to improve food safety and prevent food safety breaches.


 

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