China's Premier recognises government responsibility in milk incident

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Wen Jiabao at the opening of a World Economic Forum meeting last month.

In a rare one-on-one interview with the editor in chief of the journal Science Magazine published online on Friday, Wen Jiabao, Premier of the People's Republic of China, acknowledged that although companies were to blame, the government was also partially responsible in the recent melamine contamination of milk and infant formula from China.

"We feel that although problems occurred at the company, the government also has a responsibility," said the Premier. He added that testing requirements should be installed for all important steps in the production process, and that all food should meet international standards. Responsibility for food safety implementations will lie with the Chinese Ministry of Health.

We feel great sorrow about the milk incident. ... I once again solemnly emphasize that it is absolutely impermissible to sacrifice people's lives and health in exchange for temporary economic development.

—Wen Jiabao, Premier of the People's Republic of China.

The two-hour conversation between chief editor Bruce Alberts and Premier Wen already took place on September 30th. A Chinese version of the interview was published in the communist party newspaper People's Daily.

Earlier this week, batches of an injectable herbal medication based on ginseng were recalled after three people died. Wandashan Pharmaceutical all of its injectable herbal remedies. On Saturday, Taiwan suspended imports of a leavening agent used in baking because it tested positive for melamine.

In the milk incident, melamine was added to make the milk appear richer in protein. It caused an estimated 53,000 to become ill, mostly young children. The chemical can cause kidney stones and kidney failure.

However, the issues of China's food industry are only mentioned tangentially. The Premier spoke about social, economic and scientific issues facing his country. Wen explained his "scientific outlook on development", which tries to found social and economic progress for the people, in a sustainable fashion and with decreased disparities, on a scientific basis. An example is the use of transgenic crops in rural areas, which decreases the need for pesticides.

On the matter of fossil fuels, the Premier explained how "every year, China produces about 180 million tons of crude oil and imports about 170 million tons. China’s dependency on foreign oil is almost 50%. China’s coal production exceeds 2.5 billion tons a year. This kind of huge consumption of energy, especially non-renewable fossil fuel, will not be sustainable." He reiterated China's belief in the "common but differentiated responsibility" principle, in agreement with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and its Kyoto Protocol.

At the end of the interview, the Premier agreed that the scientific communities could build bridges between countries, even if their governments disagreed. "More scientific language and less diplomatic rhetoric could make this world even better," he concluded.

The 66-year-old engineer specialised in geomechanics began his second 5-year term as head of the cabinet last March. During his office, China witnessed highlights like the Olympics in Beijing and the recent Shenzhou 7 space launch, but also international criticism, for example on the situation in Tibet.


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