Two arrests in response to Chinese milk scandal

Posted by Isobel Drake on 15th September 2008

Fonterra’s Chief Executive Andrew Ferrier has told media today that he has been “frustrated” with the handling of the contaminated milk issue by Chinese authorities.

A baby milk formula produced by Sanlu, a company which NZ dairy giant Fonterra has a 43 per cent share in, has reportedly been responsible for two deaths and over 400 cases of illness amongst infants.

The Sanlu Board and Fonterra were made aware of the contamination of the formula on August 2, when a trade recall was initiated. The companies have since come under fire, however, due to the fact the public was not informed until last week.

Mr Ferrier indicated that the decision was not made by Fonterra, who instead were keen to ensure consumers were well informed. “We pushed and we urged and we are relieved that it is now in the public domain,” he said.

The source of the contamination was raw milk provided to Sanlu from Chinese dairy farmers.

Nineteen people have since been detained, with the first two arrests made today, according to Xinhua. The Chinese news agency reported that two brothers, with the surname of Geng, had been arrested for selling three tons of contaminated milk each day. The elder Geng supposedly began putting the chemical melamine, a toxic substance used to boost protein levels, into raw milk late last year after their milk had been rejected by Sanlu on several occasions for failing to meet nutritional standards. His younger brother then sold the milk to Sanlu.

It has been claimed that Sanlu were simply following procedures set out by Chinese authorities by not declaring a public recall earlier. Mr Ferrier refused to speculate when asked whether he believed the Chinese Government had covered the scandal up to ensure focus wasn’t directed away from the Beijing Olympics.

Chinese Health Minister Gao Qiang disputed the notion of a cover up, suggesting they were only informed about the contamination last week. “The Sanlu Group should shoulder major responsibility,” he said at a news conference.

Food safety concerns in China have been prominent in recent years since the deaths of at least 13 babies in the Anhui province in 2003. The babies reportedly died due to malnutrition caused by being fed milk powder that had no nutritional value. The issues with Chinese food-safety were highlighted globally last year with pet food, seafood and toothpaste exports coming under scrutiny, while their Food and Drugs Administration Director was sentenced to death for accepting bribes. Earlier this year there was also a contamination scare caused by dumplings imported into Japan from China.

The Chinese Government outlined a stricter draft food safety law which could lead to judges giving life sentences to people involved in substandard food production.

The contamination of infant formula in China has led to the New Zealand Food Safety Authority intitiating tests of all brands and classes of infant formula in New Zealand. The NZFSA reported this afternoon that all 72 findings so far were free from contamination. “This is a serious event in China and we know that some parents here in New Zealand might also be concerned. We have no reason to believe that any of this product is in New Zealand but have acted immediately as a precautionary measure,” NZFSA Deputy Chief Executive, Sandra Daly, said.