Two summers ago, Chinese authorities discovered that melamine, a nitrogen-rich chemical used to make plastics and fertilizer, had been added to pet food which was then exported to the US. The tainted food poisoned thousands of dogs and cats.
Officials subsequently banned melamine from animal and human food, and designated it a controlled substance. This meant the government was supposed to supervise all aspects of its production and distribution.
Simply put, the government’s surveillance plan proved to be no match for a hellish combination of impoverished farmers, chemical manufacturers out to increase profits, organized crime syndicates and complicit local officials.
Few in China’s army of small dairy farmers had heard about the pet food scandal and even fewer had ever heard of melamine. But they all knew where to get tasteless, white “protein powder” that supposedly rendered milk more nutritious and marketable, and when added to plain water created a slurry that could pass quality tests for milk all by itself.
The farmers claim they were not told the powder was a poison. Many had been squeezed between rising commodity prices and government price controls and could not break even without melamine economics.
The “protein powder” distributers were actually organized crime syndicates that secured the toxic substance from chemical manufacturing plants. They sold the powder out of legitimate-looking stores, placed representatives at milk production facilities, utilized door-to-door salesmen and stood by to answer questions about how to use the product.
The toxic powder was produced by chemical engineers who purchased scrap melamine, a byproduct of various manufacturing processes, and converted it to a form that would dissolve in water.
The manufacturers were pleasantly surprised to profit from something they had heretofore called waste. They dared not ask why customers wanted melamine scrap.
“I don’t know if my customers tell me the truth or not. I didn’t ask for what purpose they buy it,” Liu Qiujiang told the Washington Post. Liu works at a chemical company situated near the headquarters of the Sanlu group, a diary company at the epicenter of the national disgrace.