China to upgrade Health Ministry to better monitor food and drug safety

BEIJING, March 11 (Xinhua) — China’s State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA) will be put under the Ministry of Health (MOH) as part of the Cabinet restructuring plan to better monitor the country’s food and drug safety.

The reform plan was explained here on Tuesday by State Councilor Hua Jianmin, also secretary-general of the Cabinet, to the National People’s Congress (NPC), the top legislature.

The MOH will be authorized to coordinate food safety management, organize investigations in serious food safety incidents and give due punishment, Hua said.

He said the MOH is also responsible for enacting national food safety standards, pharmaceutical codes and a national basic pharmaceutical system.

The SFDA, after the reform, is responsible for food sanitation permit and monitoring of food and eatery businesses. The administration shall also monitor drug safety, including the process of research, production, circulation and use.

The Chinese government has come under great pressure to overhaul the country’s food and drug safety system after a series of controversies caused by shoddy products, tainted food and corruption scandals over recent years, which sometimes led to international disputes in addition to poisoning or even deaths of people.

Figures from the MOH showed that food poisoning, ranging from vegetables with pesticide residue to fish contaminated with suspected carcinogens and eggs tainted with industrial dyes, claimed 258 lives last year, up 31.6 percent year-on-year.

Zheng Xiaoyu, former director of the SFDA which was set up in 2003 as a Cabinet agency, was executed in July last year for taking more than 6.5 million yuan (900,000 U.S. dollars) in bribes to give approval to new drugs.

“The reform plan will further promote the role of the SFDA to oversee the nation’s drug safety in the process of production, circulation and use,” said Shao Mingli, head of the SFDA, applauding the reform plan.

NPC deputy Zhong Nanshan, a renowned medical expert, said that the reform plan would benefit China’s medical reform, particularly cutting hospitals’ involvement in drug sales, and increasing government responsibility and input.

As China’s social and economic system moves increasingly market-oriented, the role of the government as a provider of public services diminishes. From 1980 to 2004, the central government’s share of total funding for health care dropped from 40 percent to 16 percent, according to the World Health Organization. Hospitals were forced to raise their income by aggressively selling drugs.

Some hospitals run their own drug stores, turn a blind eye to government price caps and refuse to prescribe lower priced alternative drugs. Doctors receive kickbacks from pharmaceutical companies for prescribing certain drugs.

A study by the National Bureau of Statistics covering 31 provincial regions in the Chinese mainland and 101,029 families in January found affordable health care was the most important issue.

Therefore, the reform plan of putting the SFDA under the MOH serves as a timely rain to enhance the government’s role in supervising medicare market to protect the interests of the public,said Liu Xiaozhuang, a political advisor and deputy director of Jiangxi Provincial Food and Drug Administration.

Sun Fengyuan, a political advisor and doctor from the northern China city of Tianjin, shared the view, saying the reform could better coordinate the medicare service and drug supply, as the MOHis in charge of framing policies while the SFDA is responsible for implementation.

“It’s like the relationship between soldier and weapon. A good cooperation of the two will lead to the success of a battle,” he said.