Baby formula products with Hero Nutradefense labels were taken off store shelves in many cities on the Chinese mainland and removed from major online shopping websites immediately after a television report exposed the brand's safety issues on March 28.
National broadcaster CCTV reported that Import and Export Co., an authorized dealer of major Swiss baby formula maker Hero Group, allegedly mixed expired milk powder into Nutradefense products, changed production and expiration dates and repackaged them.
The latest baby formula scare again highlights the loopholes in China's food safety regulatory system while dealing another blow to consumers' confidence in the country's dairy products.
Xile Li'er is suspected of smuggling baby formula powder made only for the European market by Hero Group and repackaging it as Nutradefense baby formula, for which the company had a legal import certificate, the Administrative Committee of the Suzhou Industrial Park in east China's Jiangsu Province, where the company is located, said at a press conference on March 28.
According to the committee, of the 17 batches of baby formula products with the Nutradefense label that had been tested by food safety authorities, at least seven failed to meet protein standards.
The quality supervision authorities in Suzhou closed down Xile Li'er's production line in November 2012, as the company did not have a license for food production, the CCTV report said. Despite the closure, the company's milk powder products were still on sale in many cities on the Chinese mainland until the end of March. Many consumers were enraged about the time gap, leading many to question the state of the food safety regulatory system.
China's food industry has already been tainted in recent years by a number of scandals, including pesticide-tainted vegetables, pork contaminated with clenbuterol or chemically reconstituted to resemble beef, and oil scooped up from the gutters and resold to eateries.
The worst scandal occurred in 2008 when the melamine-tainted baby formula caused at least six infant deaths and sickened 300,000 others.
The founding of the China Food and Drug Administration (CFDA) during the latest cabinet restructuring in March is widely seen as a broader government effort to recover the crippling damage dealt to consumer confidence in China's food safety by fixing the weak links of the regulatory system.
The CFDA, which started operations on March 22, is a ministerial-level agency that has integrated regulatory functions of the State Council's Food Safety Office, the State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA) as well as food-related regulatory duties from the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ) and the State Administration for Industry and Commerce (SAIC).
People have long blamed insufficient communication and coordination among different government departments with duties on food safety for regulatory loopholes and the buckpassing among them in the wake of scandals. Prior to the restructuring, the SFDA was in charge of food safety in the catering industry, whereas the responsibilities of food safety regulation in the manufacturing process and market were assumed by the AQSIQ and the SAIC, respectively.
The new regulator, however, will be responsible for supervising the full process of food's production, circulation and consumption.
According to the CFDA's organizational structure issued on March 31, the new watchdog's function of supervising food safety has been intensified compared with its predecessors.
Out of the 17 departments directly under the new regulator, three departments are put in charge of food safety regulation. They respectively undertake the responsibilities of analyzing food safety risks during the production and distribution procedures and making suggestions about reducing these risks, supervising local governments to discover and correct the practices that may jeopardize food safety, as well as analyzing statistics on food safety, issuing warnings, organizing cross-department information sharing and formulating risk-monitoring plans.
Meanwhile, the CFDA will appoint a chief food safety supervisor.
Wang Yukai, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Governance, said that as food safety regulation requires expertise in certain fields, candidates for this position must have strong academic backgrounds as well as rich management experience.