Unpalatable truths in China's food safety
By Kent Ewing
Source of Article: http://www.atimes.com/atimes/China/KA13Ad01.html
HONG KONG - Executive heads are starting to roll in China's tainted-milk scandal as the
central government prepares to enact a raft of food-safety regulations
aimed at reassuring the world about the battered "Made in China"
label. But, even as this effort to remake China's image as a producer
of safe, high-quality goods continues, more tainted products have come
It is two steps forward and one step back in the campaign to develop a
valid regulatory regime. This is going to be a long, hard journey.
The recent trial of the head of the company at the center of the milk
scandal, in which at least six children died and nearly
300,000 were left ill, was meant to appease the angry parents of
deceased and stricken children and shock the discredited dairy industry
into urgently needed reforms. Instead, the reported confession of Tian Wenhua, the
66-year-old chairwoman of the now bankrupt Sanlu
Group, has been greeted with scorn and skepticism.
According to state media, Tian pleaded guilty
to charges of producing and selling fake products and endangering
public safety and could be sentenced to death - although the death
penalty seems unlikely for a crime of this sort. Three other top Sanlu executives were also charged at the trial,
while another 17 people allegedly involved in the production, buying
and selling of milk spiked with the industrial chemical melamine have
also recently faced the music in court.
Melamine - ordinarily used to make plastics, fertilizer and cleaning
agents - was added to milk by unscrupulous processors because its high
nitrogen content registers as protein during testing. It has been found
in everything from baby formula to chocolate bars to biscuits. It has
also been detected in eggs, traced to chicken feed. In high
concentrations, melamine can cause kidney stones and even renal
While 22 dairy companies are implicated in the milk scandal, which
broke last September, the Sanlu executives
are so far the only ones charged. This leaves skeptics wondering
whether Chinese officials are not once again up to their old scapegoating tricks: a huge scandal breaks, a few
unlucky culprits fall and then it is business as usual as the corrupt
system keeps chugging along. Is this another version of the same old
Let's hope not, but comments made by the chief executive of New Zealand
dairy giant Fonterra, which has been forced to write off its 43% stake
in Sanlu at a loss of US$120 million, put a
dent in that hope.
Flatly rejecting state media reports of Tian's
confession, Andrew Ferrier told the New Zealand Herald: "She
seemed to live and breathe Sanlu. She only
wanted the best for Sanlu, and it would be
very sad if she's found guilty of any crimes."
Although Fonterra was not represented at the one-day court hearing for Tian
and other Sanlu executives, the Herald quoted
another company spokesman as saying that Tian
had "absolutely and unequivocally" pleaded not guilty.
Only state media were allowed to cover the trial, so it is not clear
what transpired in court that day. Fonterra's protests aside, however,
it is hard to believe that the Sanlu
chairwoman is not guilty as charged, whether she confessed or not.
The record shows that consumer complaints of tainted baby formula and
sick and dying children started last May, but Sanlu
did not submit a written report to the government of Hebei province's capital city, Shijiazhuang,
where the company is headquartered, until early August. And it was a
month later before Shijiazhuang
officials blew the whistle that attracted the central government's - and then the world's - attention.
Does anyone smell a cover-up, given the events happened to correspond
with the Beijing Summer Olympic Games, held August 8 to 24? After all,
it is impossible to overestimate the importance of the Olympics to the
Chinese leadership and to the nation as a whole. It was the country's
international coming-out party, and toxic milk and dead and sick
children definitely would have spoiled that celebration.
Everyone knew that, especially Tian, her
fellow executives and Shijiazhuang
city officials, several of whom have been sacked. Their guilt seems
It seems equally obvious, however, that heads should roll at the other
21 companies involved in the scandal and that the probable legion of
local officials who abetted the dairy industry in this lethal fraud
should also have to pay.
But don't count on that. The corruption runs too embarrassingly deep to
be fully accounted for by all of the many individuals involved. The
list of culprits would go on and on, and trials would stretch out for
Instead, the 22 companies have taken collective responsibility by
offering a public apology and agreeing to a compensation plan for
victims that has left grieving families screaming for more.
"We are sorry for the harm we have brought to children," the
companies said in a mobile phone text message. "We offer our
sincere apologies and beg for forgiveness."
If affected families were not satisfied with the medium used for this
brief mea culpa, they were even more unhappy
with the 1.1 billion yuan (US$161 million)
compensation package. The plan reportedly offers a one-off payment of
US$290 to each victim who suffered "mild symptoms", $4,400 to
children who needed surgery, $29,000 to families of children who died
and free medical treatment to all children with illnesses related to
melamine until the age of 18.
The plan only begins to address the financial needs of the many
families that have already spent their life savings on their sick
children. Those parents are angry and making their anger known. Five of
them were arrested this month in Beijing
on their way to a press conference at which they hoped to air their
Despite those arrests, other aggrieved parents held an impromptu streetside media briefing at which they demanded
much bigger one-off payments and continued free medical treatment for
affected children after their 18th birthday. They are unlikely to be
appeased by the conviction of Tian and her
fellow executives in a show trial that is really only the tip of the
What's needed is wholesale reform of the now decimated dairy industry
and of China's
food-safety regime as whole. With that in mind, the central government
has promised a raft of quality control measures aimed at reassuring the
public both at home and abroad. These include tightening controls on
how animals are bred and how raw milk is produced and marketed.
Standardized testing, regular inspections and “severe” punishment of
those who violate safety standards are also part of the plan. The
ultimate goal is, by 2011, to create a mass-producing dairy industry to
replace the patchwork of unreliable operators now in place.
But this is not the first time China has pledged to reform
its food-safety record. There were similar promises in 2007 after pet
food tainted with melamine killed or sickened thousands of cats and
dogs in the US.
And there have been other scandals involving toys coated in lead paint,
toxic toothpaste, exploding automobile tires and more.
While there is no question that the vast majority of Chinese-made
products are safe, there are clearly big cracks in the regulatory
system that have caused the Made in China label to take a battering
over the past several years.
Those cracks are still there.
In the wake of the milk scandal last year, the chemical additive was found
in chicken feed and eggs. More recently, it was discovered in 1,500
boxes of biscuits intended for export to Hong Kong and Singapore.
But the good news is, this time the tainted product was discovered (and
destroyed) before it was exported.
That is cause for hope.
Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer.