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.
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.
The death sentences imposed on two of the 21 people found guilty in connection with last year’s melamine-tainted infant formula scandal have been carried out, Xinhua reports. Cattle farmer Zhang Yujun, who sold more than 770 tonnes of the tainted milk powder from July 2007 to August 2008, and Geng Jinping, who managed a milk production centre, that supplied the now-bankrupt Sanlu Group and other dairies, were convicted in January and had their appeal s heard in March. The other 19 people convicted were given prison sentences, including Tian Wenhua, Sanlu’s chairwoman and the highest ranking executive charged, who received a life sentence.
The tainted formula killed six children and made 300,000 ill. The case caused outrage across the country and hurried forward the imposition of improved food-safety standards and monitoring. Sanlu had been selling the tainted formula for some months after it had discovered it was contaminated. Meanwhile, more than 100 affected families have still not reached compensation settlements with local authorities.
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.
A hint of compensation to come for families whose children were affected by melamine-tainted baby formula.
A Health ministry announcement of a four-month nationwide food safety campaign said that a compensation package for victims was being worked on, China Daily reports. The government has formed a team to handle the compensation issue, consisting of officials of several central government departments and led by the State Administration for Industry and Commerce.
The ministry also admitted that food-safety issues were endemic:
“The tainted-milk scandal shows illegal production of food products and the use of non-food substances are not isolated incidents. Instead, they are quite typical of the industry,” Vice-Minister of Health Chen Xiaohong said during a national teleconference in Beijing.
For those of you marking your dance cards, the food-safety campaign will have three phases: From tomorrow to Jan 10, companies will be asked to conduct self-examination and correction. From January 11 to March 10, law enforcement officers will raid high-risk food producers or regions, and intensify random checks on markets. From March 11 to April 10, the focus will be on illegal food-additive producers and cutting off the supply of high-risk non-food substances.
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 Associated Press is reporting at at least five more infants died after drinking melamine-tainted formula than the three the official numbers count. The news agency also reports that lawyers, doctors and reporters have said privately that authorities pressured them to not play up the human cost or efforts to get compensation from the government or Sanlu Group, the formula maker. The Health ministry declined to say if it is investigating deaths and illnesses not yet counted by the government, the AP says.
The five babies the AP says are missing from the official count are all recorded as having died from kidney failure, the most likely cause of death from melamine poisoning. Given that more than 50,000 infants were hospitalized as a result of the health scare, more than three deaths is not unlikely.