dairy farmers caught in milk scandal
Consumer anxiety and stricter milk collection rules are threatening
their livelihoods. Analysts say it's
unlikely small farmers were involved in the melamine scandal.
(Los Angeles Times – China)
By John M. Glionna
Before dawn each day, Gao Penghong and his wife join scores of other farmers in
this dairy-rich village who must walk their cows to
a local milk collection station because of new safety requirements.
A byproduct of China's
deadly tainted-milk scandal, the mile-long walks to the station come as
officials push for more critical supervision of dairy farmers. Only weeks
ago, farmers were free to milk their cows at home and deliver the product in
heavy metal containers.
But now some observers see dairy farmers, who exist at the lowest level of
the milk production cycle, as having the most financial incentive to spike
milk to boost protein readings. Other food safety experts say it's unlikely
that small-time farmers are behind the scandal, because they generally lack
the knowledge to cause such widespread contamination.
Milk contaminated with the industrial chemical melamine is blamed for killing
four babies and sickening 54,000 others with kidney stones and other
illnesses. The food safety crisis, China's worst in decades, has
also led to numerous arrests, an international recall of Chinese products
containing milk and at least one lawsuit against a milk company.
Experts point to a growing black market for powdered melamine among food
makers in China
and elsewhere. There are numerous parties involved in moving milk from the
cow to the consumer, including collection stations, middle men and
manufacturers. The adulteration, analysts say, could come anywhere in the
Melamine, which is used in plastics and laminates, has also been used by the
unscrupulous to bulk up livestock feed, pet food and now baby formula.
In tests to determine a food's nutritional value, melamine shows up as
protein, so it has been added to make products appear more nutritious. Though
nontoxic, it can combine with other chemicals in the body to form crystals in
the kidneys that can cause renal failure, experts say.
Last year, melamine-laced food products shipped from China to pet food companies in the U.S.
and elsewhere were blamed in the deaths of thousands of dogs and cats.
Jorgen Schlundt, the World Health Organization's
director of food safety, thinks powdered melamine might be produced in
underground factories in China,
beyond the realm of small-time farmers.
"It's very unlikely that single farmers are responsible -- and
significantly more likely it's the work of the collection centers," he
said. "You have to treat the melamine before you use it. It's more complex
than just putting a little powder into milk."
Moving to stem the scandal, Chinese officials now require producers to track
raw-milk purchases back to the farmers. Monitors have also been sent to
Officials announced standards for allowable levels of melamine in milk and
other food and have encouraged whistle-blowers to report violations.
The milk contamination led China's
food safety chief to resign, and other officials have lost their jobs.
In tiny Panzhuangzi, a dozen villagers gathered
recently to rue the new collection rules. Plummeting demand has forced some
farmers to feed the unwanted milk to other animals and sell their dairy cows.
All because of melamine -- san ju qing an -- a chemical they'd never heard of until the
The new rules have created an unlikely rush hour in this enclave of 400
families, as farmers hit the road twice a day with their prized cows.
Pandemonium rules, the skittish, 1,200-pound animals bolting from passing
cars and motorcycles and often dragging their helpless wards into the
For days, Gao, 58, walked with a limp after being
kicked by a terrified cow. But what hurts more, he says, is being considered
a criminal by consumers in his own country.
That's not to say China's
dairy farmers are innocent of profit-making tactics. Regulators here have
long suspected that some inject their cows with stimulants and antibiotics to
increase milk production. Others dilute the milk with water.
For years, Panzhuangzi's fortunes have ridden on
the backs of dairy cattle. A decade ago, dozens of villagers in the fertile
area about 75 miles east of Beijing
began using dairy cows to supplement their corn and wheat farms.
In 2000, Gao and his wife, Cai
Jingrong, plunked down their entire savings of
8,000 yuan, or about $1,100, to buy an animal.
To Gao, the move made sense. Cows were gentle
creatures who performed a daily miracle: turning
grain and cornstalks into life-sustaining milk. Many urban Chinese were also
developing a taste for milk drinks, yogurt, ice cream, cheese.
Gao bred his lone cow, working up to a stable of
four. But then the market went sour. The quality of feed nose-dived as prices
rose because there was less corn, the major feed source. The price he
received for his milk also plummeted, from 40 cents a kilogram (about 2
pounds) to 20 cents.
The milk scandal was the latest blow. Gao has
already sold one cow at a loss and fears the others will soon have to go as
well. His trips to the milking station mean he also had to quit a part-time
construction job his family depended on.
His son, Gao Chunkai, 38,
feels helpless as he watches his parents' livelihood swallowed up by a
scandal they didn't create. The younger Gao, who
works in a local shoe business, at first took time
off to help his parents deliver the cows to the station each day. But he and
his brother eventually had to return to their jobs.
"My parents worked their whole lives and now everything is crumbling
around them," he said. "It's easy to blame the farmers."