News & Current Affairs

September 17, 2008

Chinese to tighten dairy testing

Chinese to tighten dairy testing

Baby treated at hospital in Xian

Babies affected developed urinary problems, including kidney stones

China says it will launch nationwide testing of all dairy products following the deaths of three babies from contaminated milk formula.

More than 6,200 babies have fallen ill after drinking milk tainted with the toxic chemical melamine, officials say.

Tests have shown that 69 batches of formula from 22 companies contained the banned substance.

The Chinese government has described the dairy market as “chaotic” and said its supervision is flawed.

Two of the companies involved have exported their products to Bangladesh, Yemen, Gabon, Burundi, and Burma, although it is not clear if contaminated batches are involved.

Kidney failure

The third fatality occurred in the eastern province of Zhejiang, Health Minister Chen Zhu said. The two earlier deaths had been reported in Gansu province.

More than 1,000 children were still in hospital, Mr Chen said, of whom more than 150 were suffering acute kidney failure.

He said all affected infants would receive free medical care.

In response, Li Changjiang, head of China’s quality control watchdog, said 5,000 inspectors would be dispatched nationwide to monitor companies and begin testing for melamine in all dairy products, he said.

It is believed that the melamine, which is used in the production of plastics, was added to the fresh milk to make it appear to have a higher protein content.

In a statement, the Chinese cabinet said the incident reflected “chaotic industry conditions and loopholes in the supervision and management of the industry”, state-run Xinhua news agency reported.

“It is necessary to learn lessons, properly deal with the incident, improve the inspection and supervision system and strengthen the management of the dairy industry,” it said.

Companies caught up in the scandal include the giant milk company Mengniu Dairy.

It says it is recalling three batches of formula made in January, after government tests found melamine in its product.

The dairy has also suspended trading of its shares on the Hong Kong stock exchange.

Bosses fired

The company at the heart of the scandal, the Sanlu Group, has fired its chairwoman and its general manager, the Xinhua agency said.

Chinese Health Minister Chen Zhu said all the seriously ill children had become ill after drinking Sanlu powered milk.

Correspondents say that melamine appears to have been added at milk collection stations, before being passed on to Sanlu.

Four officials linked to agriculture and quality control in Hebei province, where the Sanlu group is based, have been sacked, Xinhua reported.

Hospital in Shenyang, northeast China

Parent’s anger over milk scandal

The agency also said six people had been arrested in connection with the scandal and 22 were still being questioned.

Those arrested include two villagers charged with selling melamine and adding it to milk sold to the Sanlu Group.

An owner of a private food additive shop who allegedly sold the chemical to milk dealers was also arrested, as well as two milk sellers who admitted selling the tainted product, Xinhua said. Details of the sixth arrest were not given.

Sanlu made the information about the contamination of its products public last week after its New Zealand stakeholder, Fonterra – a global supplier of dairy ingredients – informed the New Zealand government, which then told the Chinese government.

Mr Li, head of the quality control watchdog, said two companies – Yashili and Suncare – exported milk powder and they were recalling their products.

On Wednesday, Bangladesh said food and commerce officials would meet this weekend to determine whether tainted products had entered the country.

Mr Li also said that melamine had also been found in a yogurt ice bar made by Yili, one of China’s biggest dairy producers, and sold in Hong Kong.

The brand has now been recalled by the Hong Kong supermarket chain Wellcome.

Confidence undermined

Mr Li said tests for melamine had not been made before, because it was banned from food products.

China is keen to try to reassure parents that it is in control of what is happening.

This scandal has undermined confidence in food safety in China and many parents are worried about what they will feed their babies, he adds.

Analysts say the incident is an embarrassing failure for China’s product safety system, which was revamped after a spate of international recalls and warnings last year over a range of goods.


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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.

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