Despite the melamine-tainted milk powder scandal that killed six babies, sickened more than 300,000 children and all but closed down China’s dairy exports in 2008, batches of contaminated milk are still turning up, the latest only this month. Some of that is supplies from 2008 that should have been destroyed but which got unscrupulously diverted into a sort of dairy black market. But the suspicion has never gone away that some dairy farmers were continuing to pad out their milk with melamine, a toxic industrial chemical used to make plastics, fertilizers and concrete but which can increase milk’s apparent protein value.
That those suspicions are well founded is supported by proposed new food safety regulations. These tighten the rules on the production and marketing of melamine, including setting up a register of wholesalers to track distribution of the chemical to retailers and getting local governments to send resident supervisors into all dairy enterprises to enforce health and safety regulations, which have already been tightened since 2008. The new rules also call for all dairy enterprises to test their products for melamine before distributing them and for food enterprises to check dairy products they buy.
The new rules come into effect at the end of October. Dairies that break them face being shut down. We also expect an intensifying of the crackdown on any dairy farmer or milk producer found to be using melamine, and the imposition of some exemplary sentences.
The Health Ministry now says that six deaths can be attributed to tainted baby milk powder and that 294,000 infants were hospitalized after drinking the melamine-contaminated formula.
That is a large advance on the last numbers made public, in September, when the scandal first broke: four dead and 53,000 hospitalized. In October, without updating those numbers, the ministry had said that 10,066 children remained in hospital with eight in serious condition. It says now that 861 are still admitted, and that 154 were in serious condition. Earlier this month, the Associated Press reported that the death toll from the tainted formula was at least five higher than official figure.
Apart from raising the official number to six, the ministry says it investigated five other deaths but ruled out melamine as the cause. The new numbers are not likely to dissipate the anger being expressed by bereaved parents or their frustration at the obstacles being put in their way in seeking legal redress.
Meanwhile, China’s dairy exports have all but come to standstill; down 92% in October compared to the same month a year earlier, as countries put import bans in place. Those imposed by the U.S. will be on the agenda at the scheduled bilateral meeting in Beijing later this week — one reason the new numbers may have come out now.
The U.S. has expanded its import controls on Chinese foods that is suspects might be contaminated with melamine. The U.S Food and Drug Administration has issued a nationwide import alert that applies to all milk products, all milk derived ingredients and all finished food products containing milk. Previously, its controls applied only to specific products. From the FDA’s November 13 notice:
FDA analyses have detected melamine and cyanuric acid in a number of products that contain milk or milk-derived ingredients, including candy and beverages. In addition, information received from government sources in a number of countries indicates a wide range and variety of products from a variety of manufacturers have been manufactured using melamine-contaminated milk or milk-derived ingredients, including: fluid and powdered milk, yogurt, frozen desserts, biscuits, cakes and cookies, taffy-like soft candy products, chocolates, and beverages. These products appear to contain at least one milk-derived ingredient and they are of Chinese origin. Reports of contamination have come from more than thirteen countries in Asia, Europe, and Australia, in addition to the United States.
The FDA also says that bulk vegetable protein products were found in 2007 to be contaminated with melamine, apparently from deliberate contamination, which has not, as far as this Bystander can recall, been widely reported before.
Chinese products currently being held in U.S. ports include baby food, baked goods, breakfast food, candies, chocolate products, cheese, ice cream, beverages, pet food and lab-animal food. Melamine has been found in candy and crackers but there are no reports of illness in the U.S. yet. Why the FDA has acted now may have more to do with the U.S. presidential interregnum, than changes in food safety concerns. It will certainly give top food safety officials from both countries something to talk about next week when they meeting in Beijing ahead of the FDA opening three offices in China.
It is less than 48 hours since a senior official said the problems with tainted dairy products were under control. Since then the E.U., India, France and South Korea have joined the ranks of those imposing restrictions on Chinese milk and dairy related imports, the maker of White Rabbit candy has issued a product recall, Japan’s Lotte Group has removed its popular chocolate-filled Koala-shaped cookies, which are made in Macau, from Hong Kong supermarket shelves, and there have been reports of baby zoo animals developing kidney stones after being fed melamine contaminated milk.
China’s exports of dairy products are modest, worth $232 million last year, but the danger to Chinese exporters lies in collateral damage to all food exports on the grounds that the lax health and safety standards uncovered in the dairy industry will be thought to be widespread. Government-to-government negotiations to allow cooked chicken exports to the U.S. for the first time are likely to be stalled because of the milk scandal.
Meanwhile, the scandal has brought down its first government minister, but in Taiwan. Lin Fang-yue, the island’s health minister, said he would resign in face of public outrage that the government would allow sales of Chinese milk products with low levels of melamine.