In March of 2009, the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, the legislature of China, released the China Food Safety Law (Law), which will become effective on June 1, 2009. The first appeal for the Law occurred in 2005 when some of the most notorious examples of food safety concerns appeared. Over the last several years the frequency and severity of the most notorious food safety incidents has increased, culminating in the tainted milk tragedy last year which resulted in extreme social pressure pushing the Chinese government to expedite its review of the draft Law.

The newly announced Law will supersede the existing China Food Sanitation Law. Overall, substantial changes are made in the following five areas: (1) establishing a food safety risk appraisal system; (2) unifying the nationwide food safety standard and standardizing the information disclosure; (3) emphasizing the liabilities of the food producer and operator who would be the primary obligators, regulating the food production, transportation, sale and other logistic procedures; (4) improving the existing food supervision mechanism; and (5) providing a relief channel for the victim customers and largely enhancing the compensation for the damages.

The Law is designed to restructure the Chinese food safety administrative system by setting up a National Food Safety Committee, which will be in charge of the food safety matters nationwide. This will fundamentally change the current messy situation where several government authorities (such as Ministry of Health, Ministry of Agriculture, Administration of Quality Inspection, Administration of Industry and Commerce, etc.) all have certain power to regulate the food safety matters, while none of them may coordinate the various actions of all the others.

A key new feature is a food recall system. Prior to the issuance of the Law, although China had some food safety standards, these standards were formulated by different government authorities, and thus were piecemeal and inconsistent. Even more troubling, the enforcement of the standards varied in different regions. By requiring the Ministry of Health to formulate a nationwide food safety standard, the Law tightens the loophole. Further, the Law specifies the quality safety norms of the food production and operation as well as the license regime for the production of foods and food additives. Based on these standard, norms and license regime, the food producer and operator are required to recall foods which do not meet these standards. This is a mandatory obligation.

Foreign food producers, exporters and agencies are required to be registered/filed with the Chinese government when exporting foods to China. Similarly, Chinese producers of foods and food materials will need to apply for a registration/filing with the Chinese government if they intend to export products abroad.

The State Food and Drug Administration under the PRC Ministry of Health, the major government authority in charge of the enforcement of the Law, is now drafting the Implementation Rules of the Law. These regulations will be a more practical guidance to restrain illegal food production and sale activities in China. It is expected that the Implementation Rules will be effective on the same day as the Law, June 1, 2009.

Companies working with suppliers or operating food manufacturing facilities in China should contact legal counsel to ensure they are in compliance.