China faces a global challenge to maintain consumer confidence in its products following a series of health scares, a senior European Union official said on Tuesday, adding that Beijing must be more cooperative.

China should provide more samples of bird flu viruses found in the country as well as samples of genetically modified produce to better help the bloc protect its own citizens, said Robert Madelin, the EU’s Director General for Health and Consumer Protection.

“The challenge for China is to maintain global confidence in its products, and the way to do that is for the regulatory authorities to be very open and very cooperative,” he told a news conference in Beijing.

“(This) is exactly what we have been suggesting in areas like GM, to share samples, so that the enforcers in Europe feel like we’re getting good cooperation,” Madelin added, referring to genetically modified products.

In the most recent scandal, US consumers have been alarmed by a spate of pet deaths blamed on tainted wheat gluten and rice protein exported from China, as well as reports of toxins and disease in other Chinese exports.

A Chinese-made medicine ingredient also killed at least 100 people in Panama, according to a report in the New York Times.

China’s Foreign Ministry repeated the government’s line that the country takes food and drug safety seriously.

“In recent years the government has done a fair bit of work on this, and has gradually set up a comprehensive legal system,” spokeswoman Jiang Yu told a regular news conference, adding investigations were continuing into “some cases”.

Madelin said China was still holding back on sharing bird flu samples.

“We need samples because flu viruses evolve very quickly and our laboratory needs to have DNA finger-printing of different samples so that if, in the future, a wild swan comes from somewhere in China to somewhere in Europe and it dies of flu, we can tell from the DNA that that’s where it came from,” Madelin said.


China has millions of backyard birds and a strained rural medical system that is seen as key in the fight against bird flu.

The government on Saturday confirmed the latest outbreak of the H5N1 bird flu virus among poultry in the central province of Hunan, but no cases of human infection have been reported in the area.

Chinese pig farmers are grappling with an outbreak of blue ear disease, or Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome, too, which industry sources say has wiped out as many as a million pigs and sent domestic pork prices soaring.

The EU would also like more samples of Chinese-grown genetically modified rice, Madelin said.

European and Chinese officials have been negotiating rules to test for ingredients processed from genetically modified rice or other cereals in Chinese exports, though the rules have not been finalized.

“Chinese officials feel that they have too little rice to send a few kilograms to Europe, but we have asked them to grow some more,” Madelin said.

No transgenic rice is allowed to be grown, sold or marketed in the EU, where consumers have a reputation for mistrusting genetically modified food.

However, last year two environmental groups said samples from three EU member states included a biotech strain in products made with rice grown in China.

China has not approved commercial growing of GM rice but some environmental groups have said it has already made its way into the food chain. (Reuters)