BEIJING (AP) - China's Cabinet passed a draft regulation Wednesday mandating stronger supervision over food safety as authorities announced busts on criminal networks that made fake toothpaste, Viagra, Tamiflu and anti-malaria drugs.
The actions came amid China's efforts to persuade the world it is serious about cracking down on dangerous and phony drugs and food, following a slew of bans and recalls on Chinese exports—from toothpaste to seafood—found tainted with high levels of toxins and chemicals.
The draft regulation ''strictly regulates the activities of producers, strengthens the responsibility of local governments and increases the punishment for illegal activities,'' according to a statement posted on the government's Web site. No time frame was given for when the regulation would come into effect, and no further details were provided.
The State Council meeting was attended by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao—indicating that the country's leaders were taking an interest in the issue.
''Product quality and food safety concerns the health and the life of the people, it concerns the trustworthiness of companies and the image of the country,'' the statement said. ''We must attach great importance to the matter.''
Meanwhile, the sting operations on the fake-drug rings were made between August 2005 and May 2006 and involved gangs spread across the country, two of which sold their products via the Internet or by e-mail including to the U.S., according to the Ministry of Public Security.
The announcement, posted late Tuesday on the government's Web site, did not say what happened to the suspects, if anyone was sickened as a result or why the information was released only now. But it likely is aimed at underscoring Beijing's past efforts to clean up its problems with rampant piracy and substandard goods.
The announcement also comes just weeks after China executed the former head of its food and drug watchdog for approving untested medicine for cash, including an antibiotic that killed at least 10 people.
In the investigation into counterfeit drugs, police in five cities and provinces arrested 19 suspects in May 2006, closed six factories and seized 40 tons of materials used to produce the fake flu treatment Tamiflu. The raid followed a tip from the U.S. Customs office in Beijing, the statement said.
The suspects were selling the drug to customers in the United States and elsewhere via the Internet, it said.
Meanwhile, information from the United States led to the arrest of 12 suspects in the southern province of Guangdong last October and the seizure of 1 ton of materials used to make fake versions of the impotence drug Viagra. Two production lines were closed, the statement said.
In April last year, a tip from Pfizer Inc., the maker of Viagra, also led to the arrest in Shanghai of a suspect identified only by his surname Huang, who allegedly sold fake Viagra and other brands of medicine to customers in the United States, the Netherlands and 10 other countries, which were not listed.
The statement said Huang used e-mail to stay in contact with customers. He sold 18,000 pills to 24 people and netted over 190,000 yuan (US$25,000; euro18,000), it said.
The U.S. Embassy in Beijing was not immediately able to confirm the busts.
New York-based Pfizer's Viagra was introduced in China in 2000. Known locally as ''weige,'' or ''great brother'' in Chinese, it gained a huge following given the country's tradition of using various substances to boost sexual performance.
Most drugs with the ''Viagra'' label sold in China are bogus versions. Six months after Viagra was introduced, state media reported that 90 percent of the little blue pills sold in Shanghai were fake.
In a separate case, the ministry cooperated with Interpol in February 2006 on a cross-border sting that netted three Chinese suspects in the southern region of Guangxi who were allegedly manufacturing a fake anti-malaria drug and selling it to customers in Southeast Asia. The statement said the tablets were falsely labeled as the domestic Guiyou brand name but didn't say whether any drugs were seized or give other details.
According to the ministry, the toothpaste bust occurred in April 2006 in Xuancheng, a city in the central province of Anhui, which was the hub of the six-province network which illegally labeled its products Colgate, Crest and Zhong Hua, a local brand.
It did not say if the fake toothpaste contained diethylene glycol—a thickening agent in antifreeze—which is a common but unregulated ingredient in Chinese toothpaste and at the center of international recalls.
Five suspects were arrested in the Anhui case and 139,200 tubes of toothpaste were seized, the ministry said.
Investigators found that one of the suspects, surnamed You, ''had colluded with others'' to produce 33.65 million tubes of fake toothpaste since May 2003. The products were sold domestically, it said.
In a follow-up campaign, another 1.3 million tubes of toothpaste were seized along with raw materials and production machines.
A man who answered the telephone at the Xuancheng public security bureau said he knew nothing about the case.