News & Current Affairs

September 17, 2008

Bitter taste over China baby milk

Bitter taste over China baby milk

Hebei People"s Hospital in Shijiazhuang

Parents are queuing at hospitals for check-ups for their children

China’s growing scandal involving milk powder suggests the country is still not able to protect its citizens from tainted food products.

Despite many other recent cases involving sub-standard food, inspectors failed to prevent toxic milk powder being fed to children.

Strict laws but poor enforcement appears to be part of the problem. China also seems to have a number of unscrupulous suppliers.

Chinese consumers are only too aware of the problems, as they have shown by buying more trusted foreign brands of milk powder.

Kidney failure

At the center of this current scandal is the Sanlu Group, a company based in the city of Shijiazhuang in Hebei province.

It has been selling milk powder tainted with the toxic chemical melamine, used in industry to make such things as plastics.

This chemical makes the milk powder appear to contain more protein than is actually the case.

So far, three children have died and more than 6,000 have been taken ill after drinking the powdered milk. Nearly 160 have experienced acute kidney failure.

All the children who became seriously ill drank milk made with powder produced by Sanlu, according to Chinese health minister Chen Zhu.

Wang Wenli
If there is a problem with the milk powder then there is likely to be a problem with fresh milk too
Wang Wenli, mother

But the scandal is not limited to just one company.

In a development that will surely worry the government, inspectors have found melamine in milk powder produced by 22 companies – one out of every five suppliers.

China’s laws do not seem to be the main problem, according to a senior employee at a foreign firm that produces baby products in China.

“There are laws and the laws are very strict. When we want to launch a product, there are so many things we have to do,” said the employee, who did not want to be identified.

Chinese central government officials often complain that these good laws are not heeded, a claim backed up by the industry insider.

“There is a lot of corruption, and Chinese companies can often find ways to carry on producing,” she said.

In order to avoid the problems now facing Sanlu, this foreign firm sends its own inspectors to check products bought from Chinese suppliers.

Rules bent

As well as being prepared to bend the rules, some Chinese suppliers also seem willing to knowingly supply tainted food products.

In this current case, melamine appears to have been added to fresh milk at milk collection stations, before being passed on to Sanlu.

According to the state-run China Daily, one man arrested over the scandal confessed that he had added melamine to milk, despite knowing it was a health risk.

He added that his family never drank the contaminated milk.

As a senior official put it at a press conference on Wednesday, China does not test for melamine because it does not expect anyone to add it to milk powder.

Tian Guangcai

Tian Guangcai only feeds his grandchild imported formula milk

“There are no special requirements on the inspection of toxic chemicals… because these kinds of chemicals are not allowed to be added to food,” said Li Changjiang, head of the country’s quality watchdog.

Perhaps the most damning indictment of the system comes from Chinese consumers, who have to eat and drink the products bought in markets, shops and supermarkets.

“It’s outrageous, nobody can eat anything any more,” said Tian Guangcai, who looks after his four-month-old grandchild.

Mr Tian said the child – like many other Chinese children – only drinks milk powder made by foreign companies.

Those foreign brands are now flying off the shelves.

Wang Wenli, whose three-year-old son stopped drinking milk powder last year, is now even reluctant to let him drink fresh milk.

“Think about it, if there’s a problem with the milk powder then there is likely to be a problem with fresh milk too,” she said.

The government’s reaction to a baby milk scare in 2004 shows just how difficult it is for consumers to judge what is safe to consume.

At that time, parents were told they should select one of 30 approved brands.

This latest check has revealed that products from some of those approved firms contained melamine.

September 10, 2008

Sri Lanka jets bomb ‘rebel base’

Sri Lanka jets bomb ‘rebel base’

Sri Lanka Air Force MiG 27s (Photo from air force website)

Jets are said to have carried out raids deep inside rebel-held territory

Sri Lanka’s military says its jets have bombed a Tamil Tiger intelligence center in the north, a day after a rebel air raid on a military base.

Fighter aircraft pounded the rebel center in the northern region of Kilinochchi, the defense ministry said.

Reports from the area confirm an air raid, injuring at least two people. The rebels said civilian homes were hit.

The attack came as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed deep concern over the increased hostilities in Sri Lanka.

On Monday, the government issued a notice to foreign aid workers to leave the rebel-held areas in the north saying it could not guarantee their safety. On Tuesday, UN officials said they would relocate staff.

The government says that it is on track to defeat the rebels.

Displaced

Officials said the area where the latest military operation was carried out is deep inside rebel-held territory.

map

“Taking on offensive raids into the LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam] backyard, Sri Lanka air force fighter jets made precision air sorties at the LTTE’s main intelligence command and control centre located in Kilinochchi,” the defense ministry said.

The region also houses several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and aid agencies. The UN said one of its vehicles was slightly damaged.

The Tamil Tigers said the air force had bombed a civilian settlement near Kilinochchi town centre, destroying 12 homes.

“No one was hurt because people sought safety in the bunkers,” a statement said.

Photographs on their website showed buildings they said were civilian houses damaged or destroyed by the bombing.

Hospital officials told a pregnant woman had been injured in the bombing. She lost her baby after a stone hit her abdomen during the raid. A child also fainted.

Rubble of civilian homes the Tigers say were hit in the raid

Rubble of civilian homes the Tigers say were hit in the raid

There is growing concern for the fate of civilians in the north after the government ordered aid agencies to leave Tamil Tiger controlled territory.

The UN secretary general said the fighting had “grave humanitarian consequences for civilians”.

“He reminds all concerned of their responsibility to take active steps to ensure the safety and freedom of movement of civilians, allowing humanitarian organizations to do their work in safety, as well as to reach persons affected by the fighting who need humanitarian assistance,” a statement said.

Human rights group Amnesty International called for international monitors to be allowed into the north to oversee convoys of aid and other essential supplies.

There are about 70 UN national and international workers in areas of the north controlled by the Tamil Tigers, the UN says. Most are based in the town of Kilinochchi.

Aid agencies say there are nearly 160,000 people in the Tiger-controlled north who have been displaced by the fighting.

The International Red Cross (ICRC) – one of the most prominent international agencies in the north – said that its teams were committed to remain in both rebel and government-held areas.

Offensive

But an ICRC spokesman said that situation was being monitored and negotiations were currently underway with the government in Colombo.

UN camp for displaced people in Sri Lanka

The UN says the plight of civilians in the north is worsening

Correspondents say that part of the problem for some aid agencies in the north is that their staff cannot leave because they are Tamil locals and the rebels will not issue them with passes.

The military meanwhile says that its offensive – aimed at crushing the rebels and ending their fight for a separate state for the Tamil minority – is on course.

The ministry of defence said that it shot down a rebel plane on Tuesday in a major incident in which 12 soldiers and a policemen were killed during a Tamil Tiger attack on a base in the northern area of Vavuniya.

The Tigers said 10 of their suicide fighters were killed in the raid.

They said that the raid was backed by artillery and light aircraft dropping bombs and that a radar station was destroyed in extensive damage to the base.

The Tamil Tigers have been fighting for a separate state for the Tamil minority in the north and east of Sri Lanka for 25 years.

More than 70,000 people have died.

August 25, 2008

Diary: Sierra Leone slum clinic

Diary: Sierra Leone slum clinic

Courtesy BBC

Fatmata with her one-year-old twins Kadija and Fatima who are on the Kroo Bay clinic malnutrition programme

Staff at a clinic in the coastal slum of Kroo Bay, in Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, are keeping a diary of their working lives for the BBC News website.

Here, Adama Gondor, who runs the clinic, talks about the challenges of its malnutrition programme and renovation works on the clinic building.

Every Friday we distribute a corn-soya blend with oil and sugar mixed in for making porridge.

Every Wednesday we distribute plumpy nut – a peanut-based paste with all the nutrients a malnourished child needs, which comes from the World Food Programme.

We started more than three months ago and have now started to discharge our first patients.

First we had 60 in the programme, now we have 102. When we discharge we admit new ones.

[Parents] beg me not to discharge their children, they need the food for survival

We’re often low on food. I think we didn’t expect to find so many malnourished children.

It is because everything is expensive now. People cannot afford to buy food and the nutritional status of people has dropped.

If a mother who is breast-feeding is not eating properly, how can she have a healthy baby?

The plumpy nut is for severely malnourished children and at the moment we have 17 children who fall into that category.

Every day now, food prices is all people talk about.

It is poverty and rising food prices that are making people suffer here in Kroo Bay.

View of Kroo Bay

We are seeing many more cases of malnutrition – even though the children we treat are gaining weight from the food we give them.

We only discharge them when they are 85% of their ideal weight for three consecutive weeks.

It is difficult to discharge the children because the parents often get upset, they want the food which is a real supplement to what they can afford, they have come to rely on it.

They beg me not to discharge their children, they need the food for survival.

I try and explain that their children are no longer dangerously malnourished and other children need the food, and they leave sad and sluggishly.

It is so hard to discharge them, children here are vulnerable, they need good food.

Rebuilding

About a month ago, reconstruction work in the clinic started. It is very exciting.

We are really happy knowing that in four or five months we will have a new, extended clinic.

Reconstruction work at the Kroo Bay clinic.

The clinic is being extended and fixed

Now we are getting three wards and an under-fives area. In the wards we’ll be able to admit patients for up to 72 hours.

The construction workers have just completed the foundations. On top of the new wards they’ll put an extra floor which will be my staff quarters, meaning I can always be on call for serious cases.

So far all the work is in the hall and although it is loud and dusty, it is not bothering us because we really want the clinic to change and be clean and hygienic.

The work is being done by Save the Children in collaboration with Concern, and I want to say thank you to all the people who have donated.

We really appreciate them sharing their earnings. We sincerely hope they’ll continue helping us – once the clinic is finished we’ll need drugs and equipment.

The Kroo Bay clinic staff

The Kroo Bay clinic staff are keeping a joint diary

Save the Children is running an interactive website where Kroo Bay residents answer questions about their lives. Visitors will be able to access 360-degree images of the site, and catch up with the latest news from the slum through regular “webisodes”.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.