China's baby-milk scandal
Formula for disaster
Sep 18th 2008 | SHIJIAZHUANG
From The Economist print edition
A scandal in China over deadly baby milk
The safety scandal engulfing not only Sanlu, fingered as the main culprit, but much of China’s dairy industry, is an embarrassment to China’s leaders. In July last year, after widespread complaints at home and abroad about tainted Chinese-made food and medicine, the authorities executed a former head of the country’s food-and-drug safety agency for taking bribes. This year, to improve monitoring, the agency was put under the Ministry of Health. The sale of tainted milk powder, which has so far made more than 6,000 infants ill and by Thursday September 18th had killed four, shows controls remain dangerously slack.
The government blames middlemen who collect milk from dairy farmers. They allegedly added water to increase its volume and, to disguise this, mixed in melamine, a chemical used to make plastics, which can deceive inspectors about the milk’s protein content. Melamine gained notoriety last year when several pets in America died after eating food contaminated with it by Chinese-made additives.
The central government has boasted it was quick to react to the latest problem. But the chronology revealed so far suggests otherwise. It has fuelled speculation of a delay to make sure the Olympic games in August were not marred by a food scare.
The government of Gansu province in China’s west says it told the Ministry of Health on July 16th about an unusual upsurge of kidney stones among infants who had all drunk the same brand of milk. It was not until September 1st that the ministry says its experts tentatively concluded that the powder had caused the sickness. Still, nothing appeared to happen.
Prodding from the government of New Zealand may have been what eventually goaded the Chinese authorities into action. On September 8th it told them what it had learnt from Fonterra, a New Zealand dairy company that owns 43% of Sanlu. Fonterra says it was told by Sanlu of a problem with the powder on August 2nd, six days before the games.
Helen Clark, New Zealand’s prime minister, said Fonterra had tried “for weeks” to persuade local officials to allow a public recall. Instead, in an unpublicised recall, powder was withdrawn from shops. Fonterra has defended its decision to keep its information under wraps for so long. “If you don’t follow the rules of an individual market place then I think you are getting irresponsible”, says the company’s chief executive, Andrew Ferrier.
Eventually, on September 11th, Sanlu announced a nationwide recall of 700 tonnes of powder. Two days later the Ministry of Health gave its first news conference on the crisis and the cabinet declared a national food-safety emergency. A government investigation found smaller traces of melamine in milk powder from 21 other companies, including leading brands such as Inner Mongolia Yili Industrial Group (an Olympic sponsor, though the government says no melamine got into the dairy supply for the Olympics or the Paralympics, which ended this week).
Heads are now rolling. Several milk dealers have been arrested. The mayor of Shijiazhuang has been dismissed. Sanlu’s boss, Tian Wenhua, has been fired and arrested. Around the country, milk powder is being withdrawn from shelves, leaving, as one Western expert on China’s dairy industry puts it, “not much but Nestlé”, a Swiss group whose milk powder is not implicated in the scandal. Sanlu’s production has been halted. Some other companies are recalling their milk powder too. The government has extended its investigations to a variety of dairy products.
But officials still appear nervous about public reaction to the news. Chinese journalists say the Communist Party’s Propaganda Department has ordered all but the party’s most trusted media to refrain from investigating the story. At Sanlu’s headquarters people lining up to return their powder complain that the local press has barely covered the issue.
Extra police have been deployed around Sanlu’s headquarters and the city’s main children’s hospital. Across China, anxious parents are flocking to have their infants tested for kidney stones. One grandparent blames the scandal on corrupt collusion between dairy businesses and local officials. “It would not have happened in the days of Mao Zedong”, he says. Harmony has yielded to discord.
Formula for disaster翻譯起來有點困難
''so far made more than 6,000 infants ill
and by Thursday September 18th had killed four''
''The central government has boasted it was quick to react to the latest problem.''