China’s Poisonous Milk

September 30th, 2008 | Sources: CNN, Economist

Tainted milk produced in China has sickened 53,000 children and tarnished the nation’s reputation as a food exporter. And the scandal isn’t going away soon.

Toxic melamine, a nitrogen-rich product used to make plastics and by scoundrels to drive up apparent protein concentrations in watered-down milk, has now been detected in yogurt, cake and sweets. Several countries in Africa and Asia have banned diary imports from China after receiving shipments of affected milk. European chocolate-maker Cadbury recalled its China-produced products as well.

A month ago, China’s government did an abrupt about-face on the matter. In the run-up to the Olympics, government-controlled Internet portals squelched stories about the scandal. After the Olympics, the government made a showy effort to get out front. It detained the chairwoman of Sanlu, one of the dairy concerns at the heart of the scandal.  It arrested some milk distributers and detained others. The mayor and local Communist Party leader of Sanlu’s home city have resigned, as has the head of China’s national quality control bureau.

It’s unlikely these steps will fix China’s food-processing systems. Local party leaders are responsible for quality control, and many enjoy cozy relations with food producers.

Foreign companies have known the Chinese system was suspect. Unilever ended joint ventures with local producers years ago. McDonald’s developed a closed supply chain for its signature offerings, and Coca-Cola monitors suppliers with enormous vigor.


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