industry took deadly shortcuts to growth
Milk was an
unpopular product only a generation ago, and then business executives and the
government pushed its consumption. Some couldn't compete and cheated.
Angeles Times – China)
By Barbara Demick
Like many Chinese peasants of his generation, 53-year-old Wang Zhengnian had never seen a cow until he reached
adulthood. He certainly never drank a glass of milk.
The fact that Wang now spends his days tending 400 cows on a farm near Beijing says a lot about the way China created a dairy industry
out of thin air. But in their haste, the Chinese made mistakes that left six
babies dead and hundreds of thousands ill from tainted milk.
Milk is not part of the traditional Chinese diet. Most Chinese adults are
lactose-intolerant and many are repelled by the smell of dairy products.
But in the 1990s, economic planners decided that dairy
cows were a quick way to improve rural incomes, particularly in northern provinces such as Hebei, Inner Mongolia and Heilongjiang with cool climate, flat
terrain and lack of other economic prospects. To encourage consumption, the
propaganda machine spread the word that children needed to drink milk to grow
as strong and tall as Westerners.
In a landscape that looks more Rust Belt than Dairy Belt, people opened farms
in patches of land between derelict factories and villages.
"Cows have been good for us," Wang said as he whistled for his herd
to come in for milking last week in Xingtang County,
170 miles southwest of Beijing.
"The business is bad right now because of the scandal, but it was great
The now-bankrupt dairy producer Sanlu Group,
headquartered in Shijiazhuang, capital of Hebei,
was a big reason for the success. Company Chairwoman Tian
Wenhua was a Communist Party official, but also a
reformer. She now faces life imprisonment for covering up the scandal over Sanlu's tainted milk.
To make the dairy industry more efficient and spread the wealth, she encouraged
peasants to raise cows. A dairy cow costs about $1,200, and those who
couldn't afford them got loans. If they didn't qualify for a loan, they
acquired their cows on a rent-to-own plan.
At the time of communist China's
founding in 1949, the country had about 100,000 dairy cattle, many of them
descendants of cows introduced by Christian missionaries. By last year, there
were an estimated 14 million. Most were in the hands of small-scale dairy
farmers who kept only a few, milking them by hand and selling the product at
a milking station, which resold it to large companies.
As Tian was promoting production, the government was
pushing domestic consumption.
"I have a dream," Premier Wen Jiabao said during a 2006 visit to a dairy farm,
"that every person in China,
especially the children, could afford to buy 1 jin
[about a pint] of milk every day."
People who once gagged at the smell of cheese now ate pizza. Busy office
workers in Beijing and Shanghai got into the habit of buying
yogurt at 7-Eleven, instead of traditional food like rice porridge. Women
rushing back into the work force after childbirth were proud that they could
afford baby formula.
From 1998 to 2007, domestic consumption increased fivefold and China
became the fastest-growing producer in the world. But farmers were still
amateurs when it came to raising dairy cows.
Chinese peasants lacked experience with the animals, said Chen Yu, a
professor at a think tank affiliated with the Agriculture Ministry.
"They didn't have the right food for dairy cows. They didn't understand
the technology of milking or transporting milk."
The milk business started to become challenging in 2006.
Prices for feed spiked, while milk prices were kept down by government
controls and cutthroat competition. Sanlu paid
dairy farms less than 7 cents per pint of milk.
At the bottom of the supply chain, many farmers who had sold their homes or
borrowed money to buy their cows now slaughtered the animals for money. Or
The most common way was to water down the milk and use additives to conceal
it. Melamine, which is used in making plastics and not intended for human
consumption, allows diluted milk to pass quality tests for protein. Although
it was known to cause kidney stones and had been banned from pet food, milk
dealers preferred it to food additives like hydrolyzed animal protein because
it was tasteless and odorless.
Inside a nondescript Xingtang storefront, former
dairy company employee Xue Jianzhong
opened a shop in 2007 to sell what he called "protein powder." It
was in fact a concoction of melamine and malt dextrin that had been created
by local chemist Zhang Yanjun, prosecutors said.
Over the next nine months, they sold $180,000 worth of the powder -- 110
By the time China's
food regulators busted the Xingtang gang and others
like it around the country, six babies were dead or dying and hundreds of
thousands were sick. 1-08-09