Uncertainties in China's melamine milk scandal linger

Saturday, November 1, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CDT

Loory: Contaminated milk and other agricultural products in China has been an underreported story. Melamine, used to make plastics and fertilizers, has been used to make milk seem more protein rich. It causes kidney stones and other health problems. In Beijing alone, one estimate says 58,000 children have taken melamine-laced milk. Throughout China, 3,600 children have fallen ill, while four have died. The tainted milk has found its way into cookies, candy and ice cream; some eggs were also contaminated. This story is now a few weeks old — why is it taking so long for Chinese authorities to establish what's going on, who put the melamine into products?

Maureen Fan, bureau chief, The Washington Post, Beijing, China: It is a huge problem, not just with the milk farmers but also the middleman between the dairy and the farmers. Melamine is also in animal feed, which is how it got into the eggs. The Chinese authorities have fired people and stepped up inspections all over the country, but it is tough to resolve quickly.

Loory:  Is it only an issue now because the amount of melamine going into products has increased?

Fan: Yes. Farmers say we have been doing this for a long time; it has only just been noticed recently. The pet food scandal of last year was a result of animals dying from eating feed containing melamine, so the problem is not new.

Loory: Melamine is added to diluted milk to increase the indications of sufficient protein?

Fan: It is simple: Diluted milk produces more volume, which makes more money. In order to pass the test at the dairy company that buys the milk, chemicals are added to disguise the fact the milk has been diluted. Protein tests look for nitrogen; melamine produces higher readings of nitrogen, so people think the product has more protein than it actually has.

Loory:  Melamine is not used in food products for any other reason — it has no nutritional value — is that correct?

Fan: Yes, but the World Health Organization says that trace amounts are occasionally found as a result of plastic packaging.

Loory:  What is happening in Hong Kong as a result of this?

Eddie Leung, editor, The Asia Times, Hong Kong, China: Parents are taking their children to the hospital for medical checkups to see if they have kidney stone problems like the children on the mainland. Officials of the government are reluctant to confront mainland officials about what foods have been contaminated.

Loory: The BBC World Service has been covering this story intensely; why is it necessary to broadcast these details all over the world?

Shirong Chen, China editor, BBC World Service, London, England: Products have been exported to many other countries; it touches all food consumers. The melamine scandal is not just a product issue, it has to do with quality control in the system, with the practices and corruption and everything that goes with it. Many people have contacted the BBC Chinese service, or myself, about how to ascertain whether certain products are contaminated. We try to get in touch with the producer directly, which is the most reliable information. In this case, because of the sensitivity and lack of transparency in China, the information is not always available.

Loory: What are officials doing to make sure that tainted Chinese products do not become a problem in the U.S.?

Willis Witter, world editor, The Washington Times, Washington, D.C.: This huge issue is in the background because of the presidential election and financial crisis. The issue will come out more after the election. Congress will likely invest money into increasing the rate at which imported products are inspected. The problem is the number of inspectors and their ability to enforce existing safety standards. FDA enforcement has been cut back drastically in the past few years.

Loory: No Americans have been taking ill because of the melamine problem, correct?

Witter: I haven't heard of anything else beyond a few dogs and cats getting sick. Other places like Taiwan, Hong Kong, or South Korea seem to be badly effected by the melamine scare. In South Korea, people are buying bread makers because they were afraid the bread might have trace amounts of dairy products.

Loory: A New Zealand firm is the principle owner of a dairy in China where this melamine story originated.  Was this firm involved in inserting the melamine?

Leung: This scandal would not be known if the New Zealand company did not ask the prime minister of New Zealand to call the national state council of China to report this scandal. This problem is a sequel to 2004, when a fake milk powder incident in China caused a lot of young children in the countryside to suffer.

Loory: Has there been a problem with tampering with food products in China?

Fan: The WHO says there has been a deliberate failure to report. The problem is a cultural one; everything can't be tested all the time. Disclosure is needed from the people who are closer to the milk or animal feed. They should have an incentive; instead, people cover it up. The state media has been reporting the milk scandal more than other problems. Yet families trying to sue over this, and their lawyers, have been threatened by officials telling them not to make trouble.

Loory: The national government has apologized to Taiwan and some farmers, correct?

Fan: Premier Wen Jiabao has said the government is to blame and has responsibility. At the same time, he claims they don't cover up, when it absolutely was covered up.

Loory: Has the press covered the lack of supervision by the government?

Fan: In the beginning, they were pretty free. The scandal was being covered because it was so appalling. After awhile, media stories appeared saying milk is now safe to drink. Photographs in the state media showed people lining up in the supermarkets to buy milk.

Loory: Are people in Hong Kong happy with the way the mainland government has been dealing with the problem?

Leung: There is a sense of helplessness here because many kinds of contaminated food have been imported from mainland China. There is no way our government can tell us what kind of food is safe.

Loory: Is the U.S. government stepping up its supervision of other products coming into this country from China?

Witter: I would hope so, but most criticism from congressional Democrats and Republicans are over budget cuts and regulatory muscle. The problem will go away pretty quickly in parts of the world where information flows freely.

Loory: Will the same happen in western Europe?

Chen: The European Food Safety Authority has asked the member states to tighten up controls. There is an explicit directive to check all products from China with over 15 percent of milk content. Europe is a dairy producing area, so they have been selling dairy products to China, rather than the other way around.

Loory: China is now beginning to import milk products?

Fan: People are definitely buying imported milk powder, but it is much more expensive than the domestic kind. Whether the central government is able to convince the general public that the Chinese brands of milk are now safe is unclear. They continue to publicize test results. They're even trying to give Sanlu Dairy Company, the center of the scandal, a new name and reputation.

Producers of Global Journalist are MU journalism graduate students Jared Gassen, Chris Hamby, Sananda Sahoo, and Hui Wang. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.


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