BEIJING - The safety crisis ravaging China's dairy sector shows the country faces a very long haul before a reform drive can bring order to a chaotic and sometimes deadly food industry, experts said.
Following a series of scandals involving Chinese food, drugs and other products that made world headlines, China last year began a high-profile campaign to improve safety standards.
But revelations that China's dairy industry has systematically been contaminated with an industrial chemical, apparently by suppliers seeking to cover-up the watering down of milk, illustrates the scale of the reform challenge across all sectors, experts said.
"This is a work in progress all the time, and to ensure this is a water-tight system, much more work needs to be done," Hans Troedsson, the World Health Organization’s China representative, told AFP.
At least four babies have died and thousands fallen ill after drinking milk powder laced with melamine, a chemical normally used in plastics but which can be used to mask low protein levels in foods.
The scandal snowballed late this week, with the government admitting that melamine had been discovered in regular milk and other dairy products such as ice cream, leading to mass recalls across the country.
And while the dairy sector is now in focus, many other parts of China's food chain are also at risk.
Steroid-fed pigs and chickens, fish pumped up with hormones so they can live in polluted water and dumplings containing illegal amounts of chemicals are just some of the well-known problems in China.
To improve the food system, China must get the nine ministries and agencies with jurisdiction over product safety to work together, experts said.
China has taken steps toward improved coordination, including making the Ministry of Health the lead agency on the issue and putting the State Food and Drug Administration directly under it.
But bureaucratic resistance remains inevitable, said Zhang Zhongjun, deputy director of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s China office.
"In my personal view the biggest problem is coordination. There are a lot of ministries involved and not enough communication and coordination," he said.
"(Agencies) might have different views and positions on dealing with the same issue."
This fractured regulatory set-up must keep tabs on a huge food industry marked by countless small enterprises that can easily operate under the regulatory radar.
The government has encouraged industry consolidation and much progress has been made in the dairy sector, giving large manufacturers control of operations from the farm to the supermarket shelf, dairy industry insiders who asked not to be named told AFP.
But that process remains in its early days, leaving large numbers of smaller businesses in the market, many of which compete fiercely against each other, they added.
"There are many stages in getting a product to market but that production process is very important for food safety," Zhang said.
"But even with huge investments in systems, controlling the whole process is extremely difficult."
China's own cabinet this week admitted systemic failings in a recent meeting.
"(The scandal) has shown us that the dairy market is chaotic, flaws exist in supervision mechanisms, and supervision work is weak," the nation's leadership said in a statement released on state TV.
Corruption is another major problem, with graft infecting all sectors of Chinese society, particularly government officials who make decisions on issues such as food safety.
President Hu Jintao has repeatedly said corruption is one of the biggest threats to the legitimacy of the ruling Community Party.
Troedsson said China had come far in regulating its product industries and that a new draft food law currently under consideration, which could come into effect next year, would help.
He said the law would boost supervision and systems that trace problems to their source.