The melamine-tainted food scandal has taken a couple of bizarre twists.
First, Britain’s Food Standards Agency said late last week that a Chinese-made novelty food product sold in U.K. sex shops has been taken off the shelves after being found to be contaminated with melamine. A FSA spokesperson said: “This is a first. We’ve never had to put out an alert before on “willy spread” – chocolate-flavoured or otherwise.” I think that is what is the known as British understatement.
Second, 1,500 dogs being bred for their fur have died after eating contaminated feed. The deaths are thought to have occurred over the past two months on a raccoon dog farm in Liaoning. The AP quotes Zhang Wenkui, a veterinary professor at Shenyang Agriculture University and who performed autopsies on a dozen of the dogs, as saying, “First, we found melamine in the dogs’ feed, and second, I found that 25 percent of the stones in the dogs’ kidneys were made up of melamine.”
Last year, dozens of dogs and cats in the U.S. died after eating melamine-tainted pet food and this year a lion cub and two baby orangutans developed kidney stones after being fed with milk powder made by the Sanlu Group, which is at the center of the tainted diary products crisis that has left four people dead and hospitalized more than 50,000 children.
The two incidents only raise more questions about how far melamine has penetrated the food chain and whether the effort to regulate it is being overwhelmed.
The Council on Foreign Relations has a backgrounder on China’s food safety regime that provides a useful summary of the current situation, China’s Troubled Food and Drug Trade. Four sentences stand out.
Of the nearly one million food processing factories, 70 percent are food workshops with fewer than ten employees.
This degree of fragmentation of the industry would make it a nightmare to regulate anywhere.
In the United States, food safety is also enforced through a variety of other means, including a punitive torts system, independent media, and vigorous civil society organizations. These institutions in China are not nearly as powerful…
Some see signs of change here, notably in the media’s role in exposing the melamine-tainted dairy products scandal. But the jury is still out.
… a common belief in China is that the “ultra-competitive business environment” means companies cannot survive without breaking the rules. Companies that do use good business practices are seen to be at an economic disadvantage…
Consumers and regulators have to make sure there are no wages of sin, and that means consumers having reliable information so they can vote with their wallets (as they have been doing with dairy products) and regulators not being too cozy or, worse, in cahoots with the regulated (see sentence 2 above).
….food from India is more likely to fail (U.S. safety inspections) than food from China. Illnesses from food in the United States more often originate domestically…
The U.S. doesn’t allow meat and poultry imports from China because U.S. law requires importers to meet the same standards as U.S. producers, so that may skew the comparisons in China’s favor but the broad point is that China is not alone in having food safety standard issues. Not that that doesn’t make dealing with them necessary and urgent.
Wandashan Pharmaceutical recalled all its products taken by injection on Friday, following three deaths of users of its medicinal gingseng. The move was announced by the State Food and Drug Administration today. Sales and use of Wandashan’s ginseng products had already been stopped.
We noted earlier that the deaths, which occurred at the beginning of October, might turn into another product safety issue on the heels of the melamine-tainted dairy products scandal (See: “New Figures For Melamine-Related Illness“). The pharmaceutical industry is highly lucrative but, like the dairy industry, poorly regulated, and rife with counterfeit or shoddily made medicines. Bacteria contamination is thought to be the cause of the deaths in question.
Xinhua says the injection, based on a type of Siberian ginseng, is often used to treat thrombosis and is also believed to be a helpful remedy for coronary heart disease.
Made in China toys seem ubiquitous in the West. China is the world’s largest toy exporter. But these are tough times for the industry.
Half of China’s toy exporters have gone out of business so far this year. A rising yuan, more expensive raw materials, slowing market growth and tougher quality standards have taken a fearful toll, Xinhua reports. More than 3,600 toy exporters or 53% of the industry have shuttered, mostly small producers exporting less than $100,000 worth of toys a year. Of those 600 had their licenses revoked for quality reasons.
Chemistry World puts some numbers on the cost of adding melamine to milk (here via the Royal Society of Chemistry site). It is a profitable business:
Industrial melamine costs about 12,000 yuan (US$1765) per tonne, much higher than the price of milk – 1200-1800 yuan per tonne. But the practice of adding melamine to milk is profitable because just one gram of melamine per kg of milk is enough to lift the apparent protein content of milk from less than 27 grams of protein per kilogram (the cheapest grade of milk in China) to greater than 31 grams per kilogram – the most expensive grade.
So for 0.012 yuan (0.0018 US cents), producers can illegally boost the price of a litre of milk from 1.2 yuan (17.6 US cents) to 1.8 yuan (26.5 US cents) per kilogram. If the milk is diluted, the resulting profits can be even greater.
Chemistry World also quotes Chinese media reports saying some milk collection stations may have also heated milk and added citric acid to increase the amount of melamine they could dissolve. Melamine is only slightly soluble in water at room temperature, more so at 100°C. The citric acid may help keep the melamine from coming out of the solution when the milk cools down, the magazine says.
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.
The scope of the melamine-contaminated baby milk scandal continues to widen. Batches of tainted formula have now been found produced by 22 companies across China, according to TV reports, here via AFP.
This will shift the focus from Sanlu Group, which has been criticised for being slow to recall the affected products, to the milk brokers who buy from farmers to sell to agribusinesses like Sanlu and who are thought to have been the ones adding the melamine so their milk appears to have a higher protein content. It will also put a spotlight on more local and provincial health authorities.
Meanwhile, Xinhua is reporting that Sanlu’s chairwoman and general manager Tian Wenhua has been sacked from both her day job and as secretary of the Party’s corporation committee.