Jan 13, 2009

 

 

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 to light.

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 failure.

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 rotten story?

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 obvious.

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 years.

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 grievances.

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 iceberg.

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.

 

 

 

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