Chinese milk scandal deepens

Posted by Daniel Palmer on 23rd September 2008

The number of infants sickened by tainted milk products has swelled to 53,000 according to the latest reports from the Chinese Government, with China’s Chief Quality Supervisor, Li Changjiang, stepping down in the wake of the scandal.

Li is the highest ranking official brought down so far by the dairy product contamination scandal, according to the official news agency of the Chinese Government (Xinhua). Wu Xianguo, the Communist Party chief of Shijiazhuang City – where Sanlu Group, the first company implicated, is based – was also sacked on Monday. Before Wu, Mayor Ji Chuntang and Vice Mayor Zhang Fawang, as well as three other responsible city officials, were also forced to step down.

The Ministry of Health has reported that, as of Sunday, 13,000 babies remain in hospital after falling ill from melamine-tainted milk powder, with about 40,000 other babies having recovered from sickness. Four infants have died.

The contamination was reportedly made by suppliers to dairy producers, who used the chemical substance melamine to convince quality checking devices that there was more protein in the product. Andrew Ferrier, CEO of Fonterra – which has a 43% share in Sanlu, labelled it a “criminal contamination” made to drive up the price.

Sanlu was aware of the contamination by August and instigated a trade recall at the time, but questions are still being asked why it was a month until the issue was brought into the public domain. Fonterra was keen to advise the public but were constrained by Chinese regulations, according to Mr Ferrier. “As soon as we learned about it; it was an issue where our people had to decide, we had to decide, what is the most effective way to get product off the shelves,” he told reporters last week. “Number one issue for Fonterra is the health of the children, and the decision was made to work within the Chinese system.”

The scandal has spread beyond milk powder to other dairy products and the first case of contamination outside mainland China was reported in Hong Kong – with a three-year-old girl developing a kidney stone as a result of drinking tainted milk. The girl has since recovered.

Press reports in Hong Kong on Sunday claimed traces of melamine had been found in a Nestlé ‘growing up’ milk, but Nestlé has since reported that they are “confident that none of (their) products in China (are) made from milk adulterated with melamine”.

“The Hong Kong Government’s Food and Environmental Health Department has just released a report declaring that Neslac Gold 1+, which was mentioned in the media reports, is safe and that no melamine was detected in the product. Neslac Gold 1+ was previously tested by government-approved independent laboratories such as the Hong Kong Standards and Testing Centre Ltd. (18-20 September) and the Food Industry Research and Development in Taiwan (16 September). Neither test detected melamine in the product,” Nestlé advised in a statement.

“Nestlé has a very close relationship with its milk producers in China and advises them continuously on the quality of milk production,” the statement added. “Nestlé also has the same stringent quality control system in place in its factories in China as in any other part of the world. Over 70 different tests are routinely conducted in the course of producing infant formula and other milk products. In fact, the Chinese authorities have issued official certificates for all tested Nestlé products stating that no melamine has been detected in any of them.”

Xinhua reported that government blame is currently centred on Sanlu and local officials for delays in publicising the issue, with an investigation suggesting Sanlu may have been aware of the issue as early as last December when they first began receiving complaints.

Chinese media have reported that as many as 18 people have been arrested, including the Head of Sanlu Group, with dozens more questioned regarding the contamination. Suppliers found to have deliberately contaminated milk could face the death penalty following the strengthening of legislation earlier this year.

China has not been immune to food safety scandals over the years, with 13 babies dying after being fed milk powder with no nutritional value in 2003. Pet food, toothpaste and seafood exports came under scrutiny last year, their Food and Drugs Administration Director was sentenced to death for accepting bribes and there was a contamination scare in Japan linked to dumplings imported from China this year.

The impact on China’s dairy industry is anticipated to be profound and it could be years before international confidence is restored in Chinese dairy products.