Thursday, September 18, 2008

Tainted Milk In China

Ariana Lindquist for The New York Times
Pieces of melamine displayed by a worker. The melamine is ground into a powder and added to animal feed as a filler to keep costs low.


Melamine is an industrial chemical used in plastics, fertilizer, flame retardant clothing, dyes, glue and many other household items. Derived from coal, it is about 66 per cent nitrogen. So what would it be doing in milk powder, liquid milk and milk products? It is believed to have been added to the milk to increase apparent protein levels after the companies had watered-down the original product.

Three of China’s major dairies have been charged with watering-down liquid milk and adding melamine ground down into powder. Melamine has absolutely no nutritional value; but, it is a rich source of nitrogen. Most tests for protein test nitrogen levels, so its chemical structure is able to fool the instruments. This was done to fool the testing machines so the watering-down of the milk would not be discovered.

For years, producers of animal feed all over China have secretly supplemented their feed with melamine because it’s a cheap additive that looks like protein in tests, even though it does not provide any nutritional benefits, according to melamine scrap traders and agricultural workers here.

“Many companies buy melamine scrap to make animal feed, such as fish feed,” said Ji Denghui, general manager of the Fujian Sanming Dinghui Chemical Company, which sells melamine. “I don’t know if there’s a regulation on it. Probably not. No law or regulation says ‘don’t do it,’ so everyone’s doing it. The laws in China are like that, aren’t they? If there’s no accident, there won’t be any regulation.”

Melamine can cause kidney stones and lead to renal failure in infants. It was blamed for the deaths last year of dogs and cats fed pet food containing tainted Chinese ingredients. U.S. scientists hypothesized it combined with another chemical, cyanuric acid, to cause kidney failure in the animals.

China's unfolding scandal involving tainted baby formula has reawakened fears over product safety amid rapid economic growth and lax regulation across the sprawling country of 1.3 billion people.

By Thursday, September 18, 2008, health officials reported four deaths tied to formula tainted with the industrial chemical melamine, while the number of sickened babies had risen to 6,244. More than 1,300 babies, mostly newborns, remain hospitalized, with 158 suffering from acute kidney failure.

The contamination began with the watered-down milk, and therefore milk products, such as yogurt, ice cream, milk bars and others, before making its way into infant milk powder and infant formula. The three brands identified as having melamine in their regular milk were Yili, Mengniu and Guangming.
Two girls drink milk from Sanlu brand bottles while waiting to be checked for kidney stones at a children's hospital in Shenzhen.THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Color China Photo

So far, 18 persons have been arrested in connection with this scandal including the mayor of Shijiazhuang and the chairwoman of Sanlu company. China’s cabinet slammed the dairy industry as “chaotic” and said “flaws” were rife in supervision systems.

Seeking to rectify some of those problems, the government said it would cancel an eight-year-old system under which food producers could gain exemptions from safety inspections if they had good quality records. One of the companies utilizing that system was Sanlu.

The government also ordered stepped-up tests on livestock feed in an apparent signal of official concern over possible melamine contamination in the wider agricultural sector.
Even before the milk scandal, foreign media investigations had discovered wide use of melamine in China to give livestock feed the appearance of higher protein content.

Unfortunately, some of the contaminated milk had already been sold to Bangladesh, Myanmar and some African countries. There has been no evidence so far that any of the tainted products have been sold overseas.

While praising China's response since the scandal broke, WHO China representative Hans Troedsson said authorities must determine why it took months for the risks to be made public, even though babies began falling ill several months ago.

"If this was deliberately not reported, that is a serious thing and must be addressed to make sure it is not repeated," Troedsson said.

Meanwhile, at a nearby Sanlu processing facility, hundreds of people waited for refunds. Some held a half-empty pouch, while others hauled in cases of the formula. A red banner at the plant declared: "Pay attention to food safety, ensure the public's health."

1 comment:

kathi said...

Thanks for the balance, Philippa. The smiling dragonfly was as precious as the milk in China story was distressing.