China's milk heartland fights to reclaim trust

(Reuters China)

By Emma Graham-Harrison

China's dairy heartland promised it has banished a toxic chemical from its milk and launched a media campaign to restore its reputation after thousands of children were poisoned.


There are 2.5 million cows in Inner Mongolia, a lifeline for tens of thousands of poor farmers and a supply for two of China's biggest dairy firms, Inner Mongolia Yili Industrial Group and Mengniu Dairy.


But they were forced literally to pour away their income after the discovery of the industrial compound melamine in baby formula that made tens of thousands of children sick and caused frightened consumers to shun Chinese dairy products globally. At least four infants died.


"Of course this has influenced the reputation of our area, and the two companies, but now we are trying to think of ways to turn the negative positive and win a wider amount of customers' trust," said Inner Mongolia's deputy governor Ren Yaping.


"The slogan we are using now is 'trustworthy milk'," he told foreign reporters during a government-organized visit to regional capital Hohhot.


Yili and Mengniu were named in a list of 22 companies found to have sold melamine-tainted dairy products when the scandal broke last month. Top company officials were also brought out to pledge their commitment to "safe, healthy milk."


At the peak of the crisis, thousands of children were admitted to hospital for treatment for kidney problems.


China's Health Ministry said late on Wednesday that 5,824 infants were still being treated and six were in serious condition.


Hong Kong said it was also investigating the case of a child with a kidney stone suspected of being related to melamine.


Officials say they have pinned down the source of the poisoning -- middlemen who collect milk from individual farmers, mix it together and then sell it on. They added the melamine to cheat nutrition tests on below-standard milk.


"There was a small portion of immoral people who at the collecting stations added melamine, but this had nothing to do with the production, management, equipment or oversight at the two companies," said Hohhot mayor Tang Aijun.


The firms, who also say they knew nothing of the problem until the Sanlu scandal broke, are cracking down and trying to shift away from tiny family farming.


"You don't know exactly who added the melamine so we think the whole system has a problem, we want to control it ourselves," said Yili vice-president Jin Biao.


The company already supervised every milk station it bought from and aimed to shift its entire production into medium- or large-scale farms before the end of the year, he told journalists in front of a gleaming model of the firm's high-tech processing plant.


"Perhaps before the melamine incident that (deadline) would have been difficult, but this is forcing a change in the whole countryside, the farming model."


Yili is heavily pushing collective farms, where the locals who have a couple of cows and supply the milk station instead effectively rent out their animals, holding on to their income and cutting back capital outlay but improving quality control.


One such commune illustrated its success with bovine "before and after" beauty shots of dirty, scraggly cows transformed into sleek, plump milk machines. 10-16-08



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