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.
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 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.
Props to the PR-focused blog Imagethief for two excellent posts on how the baby milk scandal has been handled, Sanlu Melamine Milk Powder Crisis Becomes A National Issue and Melamine In Sanlu Milk Powder? Now That’s A Crisis!. Well worth the read.
Key point: “Only an irresponsible PR agency proposes suppressing bad news as the core of a PR strategy. That’s not rebuilding or defending a reputation. That’s admitting you can’t help. But suppressing news is an old tradition here, handed down from the highest levels.”
Situation update: Health Minister Chen Zhu says 6,244 infants are ill after consuming the tainted formula as of 8 a.m. on Wednesday, five times the previously announced number. They include 158 with acute kidney failure, of which 94 were in stable condition. That implies 64 are now in serious condition.