EU official chastises China for safety lapse

BEIJING — A top European Union trade official urged China on Monday to make product safety a priority and do more to regain consumer confidence, prompting an angry response from Beijing.

China's growing importance as a global exporter has put its troubles with product safety under intense scrutiny after a series of scares over tainted goods, EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson said.

"Some Chinese officials pointed out that less than 1 percent of China's exports to Europe had alleged health risks. But Europe imports half a billion euros ($750 million) worth of goods from China every day, so even 1 percent is not acceptable," Mandelson said at the opening of an international food safety forum in Beijing.

His comments angered Vice Premier Wu Yi, who heads a Cabinet-level panel to improve China's product safety. "I am very dissatisfied with Peter Mandelson's speech," Wu told reporters after the opening ceremony, without elaborating.

China has struggled to convince foreign consumers it is a safe manufacturer and exporter after discoveries around the world of potentially dangerous levels of chemicals and toxins in some Chinese products, from toothpaste to fish.

It launched a four-month nationwide safety campaign in August and has repeatedly promised more stringent regulations, inspections and enforcement, especially for a multitude of small and illegal enterprises that form the core of the food industry.

Mandelson said he had seen "a very positive set of moves."

"But it is a long and meticulous process and ... China's partners will be watching very closely," he added. "Restoring and then maintaining consumer trust and confidence in Chinese products must be China's priority if it wants to maintain the export growth rates of recent years."

The two-day food safety conference drew delegates from the United States, Canada, Australia, Malaysia, Thailand and Japan.

Wu, who also spoke at the forum's opening, said China was "willing to make greater efforts, together with countries in the world, to maintain food safety."

She said enhanced reporting and monitoring, greater international cooperation and better media management would improve China's record.

Mandelson said about half of the 1,000 safety violations registered last year by the EU's monitoring system were for nonfood products made in China.

Chinese exports made up 9 percent of food products that were flagged, including honey, peanuts and genetically modified rice, he said. The numbers were expected to go up this year, he said.

Along with food safety, tensions have risen over China's ballooning trade surplus with the EU — the world's largest consumer market with 490 million people.

Beijing has accused the EU of using safety concerns as a pretext to protect its own producers, an allegation Mandelson called "unfounded."

"I strongly reject the argument that strong consumer rules are trade protectionism," he said.

He said fixing product safety problems depended on tackling the widespread counterfeiting of products in China, where bogus goods ranging from movies to bags and even food are widely sold.

Eight out of 10 fake products — including medicines — seized at Europe's borders are made in China, he said.

"China will never properly tackle the issue of product safety without addressing the tidal wave of counterfeit goods. This is a war that China must win," Mandelson said.

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