This may turn out to be nothing, or not. Nasdaq-listed Synutra International is again under investigation for its infant formula. First involved in the melamine-tainted baby formula scandal in 2008, in 2010 its formula was accused of triggering sexual precocity among baby girls, though the health ministry found the allegations to be baseless. Now it is products have been reported to be the cause of the death of a baby boy in Jiangxi.
Liang Zhang, the company’s chairman and chief executive, has denied that Synutra’s products were responsible (full statement), and welcomed the investigations now being conducted by provincial and local authorities. All local distribution of Synutra’s baby formula has been sealed. The boy died last Saturday after drinking the formula. His twin sister was hospitalized but survived. The company’s shares fell 25% on the news, but have since regained half that in New York trading.
Product safety scandals just won’t go away. Last month, Mengniu Dairy said it destroyed dairy products found to have contained a cancer-causing fungi. The dairy industry is still under the long shadow caused by the 2008 melamine-laced powdered baby milk scandal in which at least six children died and nearly 300,000 fell ill.
The improvement in quality standards at China’s dairies have been so patchy since the melamine-tainted infant formula scandal in 2008 that Beijing has moved to close down vast swathes of the industry. Operating licences have been denied for 533 milk producers, nearly half the country’s 1,176 dairies. The General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (Aqsiq) had said in March that all diaries would have to reapply for their licences by July. It says that 107 of the 533 who have lost licences will be allowed to reapply once they have improved their quality controls.
Local governments have been sending resident supervisors into all dairy enterprises to enforce health and safety regulations since last October when new rules came into force tightening the controls over the production and marketing of melamine, a toxic industrial chemical used to make plastics, fertilizers and concrete but which can increase milk’s apparent protein value. Dairy safety regulations had already been tightened in 2008 in the immediate aftermath of the tainted milk scandal that killed six babies, sickened more than 300,000 children and all but closed down China’s dairy exports that year.
Yet batches of contaminated milk and milk powder have continued to turn up (2,334 tones of it as of February). Some came from 2008 supplies that should have been destroyed but which got unscrupulously diverted into a sort of dairy black market. However, the newly announced licence revocations suggests that long-standing suspicions that some dairy farmers were continuing to pad out their milk with melamine were well founded.
Aqsiq says it will continue to step up its inspections, on the lookout for both health risks and officials who turn a blind eye to food safety violations, a significant problem at the local level. The newish food safety law has been amended to impose harsher punishments, including the death penalty, in such cases.
Public concern about unsafe food has been intensified recently by the discovery of illegal chemical additives in pork. The latest food safety scare is shrimp soaked in chemicals to give them more weight. Last month the Office of the Food Safety Commission said as well as dairy products and meats, its inspectors are most concerned about the safety of edible oils, health foods, food additives and alcohol. The Party is most concerned that popular distrust of the safety of food supplies may turn into distrust of its right to rule.
On the face of it, the two-and-a-half years jail sentence imposed on Zhao Lianhai for campaigning on behalf of the victims of the melamine-tained infant formula scandal that struck in 2008, is simply bizarre. Zhao, a former editor of a state food safety publication and the parent of one of the 300,000 sickened children, though not of one of the six that died, was convicted of social disorder (via BBC).
The tainted milk scandal all but closed down China’s dairy exports in 2008 and was an embarrassment to the government, particularly domestically. Following an initial cover-up at the local level, central government acted decisively. More than 20 people were convicted in connection with the scandal and at least two sentenced to death. Parents of affected families were offered compensation. Tougher new food safety rules and procedures were introduced last year to restore public confidence in what people were eating and drinking. In September, officials readied a new crackdown on melamine-tainted milk that has still be turning up as the new rules came into force. Just this week, the government said it would become more open with the public with food-safety information.
New regulations from the health and commerce ministries and the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine define what information should be publicized and by which government departments. Previously they have been typically bureaucratically tight-lipped, letting food safety information come out mainly through media reports. But “in many cases, from milk powder to the crayfish, false news was occasionally delivered to consumers and this hurt public confidence in China’s food safety and the government’s credibility,” said Deng Haihua, spokesman for the Ministry of Health, the main government agency in charge of overseeing food safety (via China Daily).
Wherein lies the clue to Zhao’s sentence. The credibility of the government’s ability to take care of its citizens over everything from tainted milk and the earthquake resistance of school buildings to getting richer is an important plank of the platform on which the Party’s legitimacy to govern rests. It was severely tested by the tainted milk scandal and the government’s response to it. Zhao’s efforts to publicize the scandal, organize a parents’ self-help group and to get better compensation for families was seen as saying that the government was falling short in protecting its citizenry. That was a direct political challenge. Party strategists have long feared single-issue pressure groups as a potential threat to the Party’s legitimacy to govern and a possible kernel of opposition parties. Thus even single-person pressure groups are not to be tolerated.
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.
When we first read a headline on the BBC site about arrests over melamine tainted milk we thought we were reading a two-year old web page. But, no, it is dated today and reports the arrests of seven people at a dairy in Shanxi including the general manager for adding the toxic industrial chemical to milk powder. Twenty-six tones of the tainted product from the dairy had been distributed in Hunan and Henan.
New rules on food safety were put in place after the 2008 melamine tainted infant formula scandal which killed six children, made more than 300,000 sick and led to a worldwide recall of dairy products from China. What is unclear at this point is whether this latest incident represents a legacy case involving old powder that should have been destroyed after the 2008 scandal — Sanlu, the company at the heart of the original scandal, had stocks of more than 2,000 tonnes that were sealed before it went bankrupt and some of it has been turning up occasionally — or whether old habits are dying hard.
Addendum: We are reminded that in July authorities in Qinghai seized 64 tonnes of melamine-adulterated milk powder at a dairy there following the discovery of tainted formula in Gansu. More than half the seized volume had come from Hebei, suggesting it was from stocks that should have been destroyed but had not.
Someone always tries to make a buck out of misery. Melamine-tainted infant formula that was meant to have been destroyed following the food-safety scandal of 2008 that killed six children has been turning up in dairy products across the country. Examples have been found in at least six provinces and in Shanghai.
In one of the latest discoveries, authorities turned up at least 170 tonnes of milk powder in Ningxia. Ningxia Tiantian Dairy is said to have repackaged the tainted powder and sold it to factories in neighboring Inner Mongolia and in Guangdong and Fujian. In Shaanxi, three dairy firm managers have been arrested for allegedly selling 10 tonnes of tainted milk powder to a local diary. Three executives from the Shanghai Panda Dairy Company were prosecuted in December for similar offences.
It is not known how much tainted infant formula may be out there, but Sanlu, the company at the heart of the original scandal, had stocks of more than 2,000 tonnes that were sealed before it went bankrupt. The real problem may lie in stocks spread across the multitude of small dairy farms. Since Feb. 1 food-safety inspectors have been fanning out across the country in an effort to stop the scandal reemerging on a large scale. Exemplary punishments seem likely.
A new food safety law was introduced last year that puts more responsibility on food producers to ensure their products are safe. The growing number of cases in recent weeks is a blow to China’s efforts to restore confidence in its dairy products and food safety regime overall.
China has passed its first food-safety law, and established a cabinet-level commission to oversee it. The idea is to create a national set of food-safety standards under one regulator and put more legal liability on China’s 500,000 food producers.
How effective it is and whether it will reassure consumers whose confidence has been left in tatters following a succession of scandals, notably melamine-tainted infant formula last year, remains to be seen. The lesson from food-safety regimes around the world is that it is employing the inspectors and having the political will to enforce the regulations that matters more than having the law on the books. But having the law is a start.
The sentences in the melamine-tainted infant formula trials have been handed down, Xinhua reports. They are harsh, if not unexpectedly so.
The most prominent defendant Tian Wenhua, who was chairwoman of the Sanlu Group, the largest producer of baby milk powder, gets life imprisonment and a 20 million yuan ($2.9 million) fine. Now-bankrupt Sanlu was fined 50 million yuan.
Separately (the sentencing was spread across five courts in Shijiazhuang in Hebei province), two of the middleman involved, cattle farmer Zhang Yujun and milk trader Geng Jinping, received death sentences. Zhang Yujun was accused of running an illegal workshop in Shandong province, producing 600 tonnes of the fake protein powder –the largest source of melamine in the country. Geng Jinping was convicted of producing and selling toxic products to dairy companies from his milk production base.
The courts also jailed two other people for life and six, including three former Sanlu executives, for between five and 15 years for their part in the scandal, Xinhua says.
Apart from the 21 defendants who have been sentenced or tried, a further 18 have been arrested but it is unclear if or when they might be tried.
The parents of the first child to die from ingesting melamine-tainted infant formula has accepted compensation from Sanlu Group, the dairy company at the heart of the scandal, their lawyers say. They have taken the 200,000 yuan ($29,000) death payout under the standardized compensation scheme announced last month by China’s dairy association and the 22 dairy companies involved.
The couple give up their right to further legal action. Not so other parents who say the compensation levels are too low, even though lawyers quoted by Xinhua say that death compensation in Gansu, where the couple live, is typically 40,000 yuan. Parents in Guangdong province launched a lawsuit against Sanlu and the China Dairy Industry Association in October demanding 900,000 yuan, but the Guangzhou court wouldn’t hear the case.
Xinhua also says that more than 3,000 families in Shijiazhuang, capital of Hebei province, where Sanlu is based, have accepted the compensation package, quoting local government officials. The squeeze has been put on parents to take the money regardless of their reservations.
“Some parents were reluctant to accept the compensation package at the beginning, but they were persuaded and have since changed their minds,” a spokesman of the Shijiazhuang government said.
Six babies died and 296,000 children were sickened by the tainted milk. At the start of December, 861 children were still in hospital suffering from kidney stones or urinary problems. The health ministry has not updated the numbers since.
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.