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From the Year of the Tiger to the Year of the Rabbit

2023.02.28

Despite the challenges that COVID-19 brought to China in 2022, there were significant regulatory developments in the food industry. The authorities continued to strengthen its food supervision by focusing on food safety control, as well as emphasizing product quality and consumer health. New plans were laid out to optimize the food law system, update key food standards, and adopt new policies to promote a diversified food market in China. With those changes in 2022, we expect the authorities to continue this momentum in 2023 to further improve the food regulatory environment while working on new rules in response to issues pertaining to new food technologies. This article provides a recap of the major food regulatory developments in China in 2022, followed by our outlook for 2023.

 

I.  Efforts Made to Improve Food Standards 

 

Two National Plans on Modernizing the Food Standard System

 

In the plans, authorities are urged to speed up the revision of food safety standards concerning labeling and food additives and improve the development of the food nutrition standard system during the 14th Five-Year period (2021-2025). The draft national standard for nutrition fortification (GB14880) is currently open for consultation, which, for the first time, introduces the concepts of “mass food fortification” and “voluntary food fortification”. All comments must be submitted before February 28, 2023. 

 

Food Safety Standards for Food Additive Use and Enzymes Under Revision 

 

A draft amendment to the food additive use standard (GB 2760) was released by the National Health Commission (NHC) in September 2022. For example, the draft proposed adding a new warning requirement for food using excessive polyol(s) in its production, which may cause diarrhea. Another draft standard, i.e., Food Additive Enzyme Preparation for Food Industrial Use, was also published for consultation in 2022. It establishes a list of excipients permitted for use in food enzymes with 97 substances (e.g., citric acid, lactic acid) cleared in enzyme preparations as excipients. More details can be found on China's draft standards for food additives in Keller and Heckman’s China Regulatory Matters (CRM) newsletters.

 

Food Labeling Standards as a Toolkit to Promote National Health

 

The promotion of “front-of-package” (FOP) nutrition labeling is on the agenda of China’s 14th Five-Year Plan. Efforts will be made to achieve “Three Reductions,” i.e., reduction of salt, oil, and sugar. Strict labeling measures will be adopted to control foods high in fat, sugar, and salt (HFSS). For example, draft GB 28050 mandates the on-pack display of language, “Children and teenagers should carefully choose foods with high salt, high fat, and high sugar.” The National Food Safety Standards Labeling of Prepackaged Food for Special Dietary Use is also under revision. Its draft amendment newly subjects saturated fat and sugar to mandatory declaration. The Chinese State Administration for Market Regulation (SAMR) also published guidance to instruct on the labeling of foods for special medical purposes.

 

Voluntary Food Standards have been developed in response to an innovative food market. Some group standards for foods targeting specific consumer groups, e.g., foods for children and probiotic foods, were proposed by interested stakeholders. Details of China’s group standards can be found in Keller and Heckman’s CRM newsletter in May 2022.

 

II.  Promotion of A Diversified Food Market

 

New Ingredients and Food Additives Continue to be Approved

 

The number of cleared new food ingredients and additives has been increasing in the past two years, with five food ingredients and 32 new food additives newly approved in 2022 alone. Amid the pandemic, certain approvals, e.g., those for pyrroloquinoline quinone disodium (PQQ) salt and sugarcane polyphenols, took less than a year. Despite the stringent documentation requirements and comprehensive scope of review, the Chinese authorities appear to support more options in the food market. This sends a positive signal to companies that wish to secure clearance for their products.

 

New Edible Strains Permitted in General Foods and Infant and Young Children Foods

 

The food use edible strains list incorporates 16 new edible strains that have been approved by NHC since 2010. In this list, the Latin names of certain edible strains and their subspecies have been revised. Accordingly, enterprises are required to update the strain name on their food label pursuant to the updated list. 

 

Health Food Market to Prosper with More Ingredient and Claim Options 

 

SAMR, in 2022, released an updated Catalog of Health Food Ingredients, which offers a wider range of ingredients for health food manufacturers to choose from. Specifically, SAMR proposed to approve three ingredients as health food ingredients, namely Ginseng Radix et Rhizoma, Panacis Quinquefoli Radix, and Ganoderma. Guidance also was provided by SAMR on how to expand the current scope of permitted function claims for health foods. A more detailed discussion regarding the management of health foods in China can be found in Keller and Heckman’s previous CRM article titled “Health Foods in China: New Rules Approving Functional Claims".

 

Alternative Protein Industry Prospects a Stride Forward with Strong Regulatory Support

 

In China’s Two Sessions 2022, President Xi mentioned the concept of the “Greater Food” approach, urging the building of a diversified food supply chain and developing food sources through multiple channels. Further, he stressed that apart from traditional crops and livestock and poultry resources, it is necessary to exploit biological resources and obtain calories and protein from plants, animals, and microorganisms by developing biological science, technology, and bio-industries. With positive feedback from the central level, active discussions are taking place among food authorities to decide whether the novel food review approach is the appropriate pathway to clear cultured meat. Additionally, the authorities are participating in discussions with various international organizations such as WHO and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) to discuss the regulatory framework for new protein products. Notably, per a document released by FAO, cell-based food will likely be treated as novel food subject to pre-market review by the Chinese authorities. There is no doubt that regulatory developments on this matter outside China may impact China’s review of these new foods as well. We anticipate more clarity on the appropriate regulatory pathway to promote various new alternative protein products to end up on the table of Chinese consumers in 2023. On the plant-based side, various group standards were drafted or published in 2022. These standards provide guidance to businesses in their production and export to China. You can find the latest food regulatory developments in the area of alternative proteins across the Asia Pacific region in our series, “Special Focus on Alternative Proteins".

 

III.  Outlook for 2023

 

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many food regulations and rules that were originally expected to be released in 2022 have not been finalized. In the Year of the Rabbit, we anticipate that the Chinese government will continue to formulate and revise food standards to enhance food safety and quality. Of particular note is a set of food labeling-related standards and measures to be finalized in 2023, e.g., GB 7718 for the labeling of prepackaged foods, GB 28050 for nutrition labeling, as well as the Measures on Supervision and Management of Food Labeling. These standards and measures will likely have a prominent impact on both domestic and foreign food companies doing business in China. In addition, we expect that the Chinese government will take solid steps (e.g., clarifying the approval procedure for cell-based foods and developing corresponding guidance) to promote the alternative protein sector in 2023. 

 

With regard to imported foods, China started to relax its control measures on imported foods that were initially implemented due to COVID-19, for example, canceling nucleic acid testing and COVID-19 monitoring requirements for imported foods[19]. We expect that some of the favorable policies that were in place to facilitate the customs clearance of foreign food will be resumed by the Chinese authorities.

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