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Beijing Says Food Safe for Olympic Athletes, Tourists

Athletes and visitors heading to Beijing for the Olympics should not be concerned by recent Chinese food scandals, as many safety measures are being put in place for the Games, city officials said.

International alarm over Chinese food exports has been building for weeks amid reports of toxic produce endangering lives in the United States and other countries.

China's own food inspectors announced last week that a six-month crackdown had uncovered industrial oils, acid, cancer-causing chemicals and other dangerous ingredients in thousands of everyday foods sold domestically.

Stung by the string of revelations, the Beijing government is working overtime to ensure that the 10,500 athletes and expected 550,000 foreign visitors to the Olympics are not scared off, or exposed to any safety risks.

Beijing State Administration for Industry and Commerce, one of the departments that oversees the city's food industry, said that dangers do exist but it is taking extensive measures to ensure quality and safety in 2008.

"There are problems with food safety in China, but they are not that serious and should not be exaggerated," Li Dongsheng, vice minister in charge of the administration, told reporters on a recent tour of food inspection sites.

"We are taking into account the security of the people and the consumers and also the need to avoid panic."

City and Olympic officials have already begun implementing rigorous, and occasionally extreme, plans to ensure Beijing's food production and distribution network is working flawlessly for Olympic athletes next year.

Round-the-clock guards will be on duty in Olympic kitchens, food storage areas will be under video surveillance and food transport vehicles will be fitted with global positioning systems.

White mice will also be used to test food destined to be consumed by the athletes.

"With this syst em in place, if a food security issue were to arise, we would be able to alert producers and distributors within 30 minutes and pull any suspect product from the shelves," said Tang Yunhua, in charge of logistics at the administration.

A key part of China's food safety problem lies in the structure of the industry, which is dominated by small firms, many of which have no government licences.

However, only top-flight suppliers will be involved in the Olympic catering operation, according to Tang.

"Chinese firms who will supply produce for the Games all have a fairly high level in terms of quality, and their goods meet international standards," Tang said.

The government is also trying to extend tighter food security beyond the Olympic Games to the rest of the capital of 15 million people.

The central government also announced last month announced that it would update its food safety standards, as some of them were out of date.

The government is also relying on ordinary Beijingers. A government hot line opened in 1999 for consumer complaints has proved to be a useful weapon.

"Food-safety complaints were the highest proportion of complaints in 2006, about 25 percent of the total," said Han Miao, deputy director of the complaint centre.

However the official assurances fall far short of satisfying Zhou Qin, a Beijing dissident and author of a 2006 book that revealed serious food safety problems in China.

"During the Olympics, it will be difficult to keep Beijing's food safe," he told AFP.

"They might be able to provide safe food for the athletes, but is is uncertain whether they can do it for the rest of us."

As well as the vast number of suppliers who escape government monitoring, there is a structural issue within the government because responsibility for food safety is spread across several departments, he said.
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