No milk today
September 21, 2008 1:30 PM   Subscribe

Why can't China guarantee safe milk for its babies? "From the outset, in what seemed like some bizarre parallel universe, rather than alert Chinese parents as soon as possible to potentially life-saving information about the melamine contamination, baby formula producer Sanlu and various levels of government tried to shut down information. (...) Chinese journalists say the government's Central Propaganda Department, however, issued orders that Chinese media not send their own reporters to further investigate the story."

Sanlu is 43% owned by New Zealand dairy company Fonterra. September 16, their chief executive "Andrew Ferrier said he was happy with the way the NZ dairy giant had acted over the crisis, which has affected more than 1200 babies.

"I can look myself in the mirror and say Fonterra acted absolutely responsibly in this one," he said."

Bloomberg reported September 20 that "Fonterra Cooperative Group Ltd. told New Zealand's embassy in Beijing on Aug. 14 that its Chinese partner Sanlu Group Corp. may be using milk contaminated with the industrial chemical melamine, according to the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

New Zealand authorities first notified China's central government that the goods may be tainted on Sept. 9, more than three weeks later, the ministry said in an e-mailed statement today. China announced a probe on Sept. 10, and the next day the Ministry of Health said milk powder made by Sanlu may cause kidney stones in infants.

"There was insufficient information'' for the New Zealand embassy to notify the foreign affairs ministry in Wellington until Aug. 31, the statement said."

Previously: Chinese Pet food and animal feed with melamine, cough syrup with antifreeze, toys with lead paint, poisoned toothpaste.
posted by iviken (44 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
So, what, the one child per family minimum wasn't good enough population control? What the hell, China?
posted by Caduceus at 1:36 PM on September 21, 2008


"Parents are panicking as they puzzle how to feed the babies that the Chinese health system has told them will grow up more healthily drinking milk powder than breast milk. For most parents, the babies are the only ones they will have."
posted by iviken at 1:41 PM on September 21, 2008


***shhhh..... feed it to the girl, feed it to the girl.......***
posted by longsleeves at 1:41 PM on September 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


iviken quoting The Australian: For most parents, the babies are the only ones they will have.

Okay, I've been reading about the One Child Policy trying to figure the following out... if your child dies, do you get to have another? Or the one child all you get to have without incurring fines? Because if the case is that this is the only child these parents will ever have without being fined for it then an already appalling tragedy will be pushed into stratospheric altitudes of horror.
posted by Kattullus at 1:52 PM on September 21, 2008


Okay, I've been reading about the One Child Policy trying to figure the following out... if your child dies, do you get to have another? Or the one child all you get to have without incurring fines? Because if the case is that this is the only child these parents will ever have without being fined for it then an already appalling tragedy will be pushed into stratospheric altitudes of horror.

I haven't been able to figure it out either. And really, you can say that again. This is really, really NOT OKAY. I mean, the cynic in me understands the Chinese government only vaguely caring about poisoned exports, but my mind is boggled by the fact that they'd rather let their own citizens feed their children poisoned milk than admit to having fucked up. That's what this is, isn't it? What other reason could they possibly have for suppressing this info? Either that or they're suppressing information by pure reflex at this point.

Seems to me that shit like this is going to get out no matter how good a job they do suppressing it, and that the government's reputation with the people can only be hurt by it. If they'd, you know, broadcast warnings and helped people get non-poison milk for their kids, it would have had to have been better for their reputation than the cover-up. I just can't even comprehend the motivation behind the government's actions.
posted by Caduceus at 2:04 PM on September 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


"China will reverse sterilisation operations given to parents of children who died during the May earthquake. (...) China' one child policy means parents risk a large fine should they give birth to a second child. Under the law, parents are allowed to have another if the child dies or is disabled. The operation will allow parents to have another child following the earthquake."
posted by iviken at 2:05 PM on September 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


Yes, parents of children killed in the recent massive earthquake in Sichuan province can apply for permission to have another child, and if they agree not to press for an explanation as to why the schools that collapsed were so shoddily constructed they will recieve a free month's supply of powdered milk.
posted by longsleeves at 2:10 PM on September 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


Thanks for posting - it's huge news in this corner of the world.

The people who collect milk from the farmers add melamine to increase the amino acid/protein level and mask the fact that
they are diluting the milk to increase volume, hence the amount of money they get. Besides from Sanlu, several of China's biggest dairy firms are also implicated, including Mengniu and recently Nestle. Contamination has also spread to Taiwan and Hong Kong, unsurprisingly.

'Thousands ill' due to China milk
Mayor in China fired in baby formula scandal
Anger over China milk scandal

It's pretty sick - not the first time this happened to milk powder in China either. ~ 80 babies died of malnutrition in 2004 due to sub-standard formulas.
posted by monocot at 2:10 PM on September 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


What other reason could they possibly have for suppressing this info?
Non-mainland Chinese media (Taiwan, HK etc.) have been speculating that this has to do with the timing of the Olympics. It's not too hard to believe given the government's past behaviour.
posted by monocot at 2:15 PM on September 21, 2008


The cruelty for those in the quake was that they maybe too old to have a second child so the government being kind enough to let them have a second child seems kind only on paper.

I am wondering if the foreign holder, Fonterra, is going to take the fall. They had the temerity to try to warn of the contamination and the New Zealand government tried to whistle blow as well. Things like that get you punished.

On why the government does coverups? Well, besides it being the nature of totalitarian regimes the question you should ask is whether San Lu is owned in some manner by any ministry or ministry officials. Does the PLA have some vested interests? Look at the relationships and whose heads would roll.
posted by jadepearl at 2:15 PM on September 21, 2008


Baby milk, even when it works, lacks many of the nutrients that regular mothers milk contains. I don't think any child should be drinking formula unless there is some critical issue with the mothers milk (e.g. orphan, medical, etc.)
posted by furtive at 2:22 PM on September 21, 2008 [5 favorites]


Totally tangential milk safety anecdote - didja know that bovine tuberculosis can be transmitted to humans through cow's milk? Stopping that from happening was a major public health achievement in the early 20th century U.S. and Europe.
posted by XMLicious at 2:38 PM on September 21, 2008


I think monocot is probably right that this appalling cover-up is Olympics-related, though enforcement of health and safety regulations has long been weak and corrupt. It's Victorian capitalism in the raw without the rule of law or civic freedoms required to hold the worst venality in check. You can poison babies or kill miners with impunity but the state security apparatus can catch a civil rights activist the minute they turn on their mobile phone. Perhaps some staffing reallocation is in order.
As an aside, "One Child Policy" is something of a misnomer; the state family planning policy never mandated only one child for the vast majority of Chinese citizens. Han families with rural household registration could have a second child if the first was a daughter; various ethnic minorities could have three or more children or had no restrictions at all. This latter had some unexpected consequences as people gamed the system; I understand there was an upsurge in registration as Manchu, an ethnicity previously not popularly claimed because of association with the disparaged Qing dynasty.
posted by Abiezer at 2:44 PM on September 21, 2008 [2 favorites]


Fortunately, there are still 17 million babies born every year in china. So this impact will hardly be felt. Plus, as china modernises, one would expect their technical quality control to improve, along with their organisational/cultural maturity with respect to admitting mistakes.
posted by magic curl at 2:47 PM on September 21, 2008


Thanks iviken and longsleeves. This is a policy version of a Wexelblat disaster. A horrifying food contamination is made even worse by existing policy.
posted by Kattullus at 2:50 PM on September 21, 2008


Fortunately, there are still 17 million babies born every year in china. So this impact will hardly be felt

I'm desperately searching through this thread for a reference to China's future economic prosperity being threatened by these deaths, because that's about the only way this comment isn't totally repugnant.
posted by Adam_S at 3:00 PM on September 21, 2008 [7 favorites]


Big bureaucracies often react this way. It reminds me of the US military's response to acts of wrongdoing on the part of its members - deny, obfuscate, restrict access, cover-up and then put a happy face on it and claim that you are taking the situation seriously but that it really seems like there isn't anything there. In a situation like the milk crisis in China add the desire to prevent panic to that list. An open government and a free and vigorous press helps alleviate the sins of the government bureaucracies. China has neither.
posted by caddis at 3:05 PM on September 21, 2008


"As China's poisoned milk scandal spreads across Asia, it has been revealed that sub-standard milk has regularly been bought for bargain prices and used in baby formula, or mixed with certified liquid milk. A South China Morning Post report from Inner Mongolia, a centre of Chinese dairy production, said some farmers froze bad-smelling milk and mixed it with fresh milk later. (...)
Yang Conyong, vice-governor of Hebei province - where Sanlu, the company whose baby formula contains by far the highest concentration of melamine, is based - said two arrested milk farmers had confessed to having used the chemical as early as 2005. He said Sanlu knew of the contamination at the time."

"A new mother sensing a business opportunity in the wake of China's tainted milk scandal is offering to breast feed other children for a price, according to state news agency Xinhua. The 32-year-old woman surnamed Huang said she had been producing more milk than her 3-month-old son could consume, so has decided to sell the surplus in a breastfeeding service for 300 yuan (£24) a day, said Xinhua. While the woman's internet advertisement has caused a storm, she says it doesn't matter.
"My husband fully supports me on this," Xinhua quoted the entrepreneurial mother as saying."

UNICEF: "Breastfeeding rates in China have decreased from 76% in 1998 to 64% at the present time [2004]."

Regarding the comment from magic curl, here's what CNBC's Erin Burnett said last year about dangerous products from China:

“A lot of people like to say, uh, scaremonger about China, right? A lot of politicians, and I know you talk about that issue all the time. I think people should be careful what they wish for on China. Ya know, if China were to revalue it’s currency or China is to start making say, toys that don’t have lead in them or food that isn’t poisonous, their costs of production are going to go up and that means prices at Wal-Mart here in the United States are going to go up too. So, I would say China is our greatest friend right now, they’re keeping prices low and they’re keeping the prices for mortgages low, too.”
Higher prices at Wal-Mart? Shocking!
posted by iviken at 3:16 PM on September 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


Sanlu is the largest producer of milk products in China, but 21 other producers also sold contaminated milk powder. Some of the milk powder went to Taiwan, and some may have gone to Bangladesh, Yemen, Burma, Burundi and Gabon. None of it appears to have gone to Australia, the Americas or Europe.

Chinese producers that import all their milk from Australia have come up clean in tests. This does not include the company Ausmeadow, which claims to use Australian milk, but has not done so for at least 2-1/2 years. Ausmeadow's milk has been found to be contaminated with melamine.

The government news handling appears to be particularly cynical:
Employees in the China Central Television said they received notice last Friday saying that they should only use news release from Xinhua News. Some reporters said they did receive notice asking them not to report comments and news related to children's kidney stone cases due to the poisoned powdered milk products.
...
The “Sanlu poisonous milk scandal” attracted more and more attention until the Central Propaganda Department gave strict orders on 9/15 to stop all Chinese media to report and investigate this scandal. Xinhua News, which is a mouthpiece of China government, shifted from a critical tone of voice to more positive reports and eulogy for the government departments' effectiveness in dealing with this scandal…This is a tragedy for hundred of thousands families. However, the sad story is being transformed into a happy story–what we hear now are honorable stories about those leaders and people working in the government…There is a proverb “after disasters a country will be stronger.” I think this proverb should be understood as “when the citizens are suffered from disasters, the Communist Party of China becomes stronger and stronger.”
The scandal is having a serious impact on the small dairy farmers who produce milk for the big companies. The government now seems to hold the farmers blameless.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:34 PM on September 21, 2008


magic curl cannot possibly be a parent.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:07 PM on September 21, 2008


"China is our best friend"
posted by matteo at 4:27 PM on September 21, 2008


Formula for under 6 months is not WHO standard anyhow. Non breastfeedling greatly increases the risk of infant mortality during the neonate period.
posted by tarvuz at 4:38 PM on September 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


[...] my mind is boggled by the fact that they'd rather let their own citizens feed their children poisoned milk than admit to having fucked up. That's what this is, isn't it?

What it is, is how completely fucked up cultural forces can be when taken to extremes. The Chinese are obsessed, manically so, with the concept of "face." I grew up in the culture, so I've been exposed to a lot of it, and to this day I think it is one of the most dysfunctional culture memes in existence.

Ordinary Chinese people crave face. Political figures exponentially so. Central Committee members that lose face are likely out of a job, and should the blame for some bad shit land at their feet, they'll likely spend the rest of their lives in a delightful Chinese prison.
posted by illiad at 5:07 PM on September 21, 2008 [5 favorites]


Why are they being told that breastmilk is less safe? It seems pretty bizarre unless you assume that the adult bodies are poisoned or something. There are some chemicals that are not too harmful for adults but bad for children.
posted by delmoi at 5:50 PM on September 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


Some of the online commentary is really interesting:

- Whistleblower about why he identified Sanlu as the company responsible for the contamination
- About downplaying the incident by pointing the finger - other countries do it too!
- Chinese hackers taking on the cause?
- Anti-Sanlu photoshops at ChinaSmack.
- ChinaSmack also has some interesting translations of Chinese netizens reacting to the scandal.

Also, Taiwan has banned a variety of milk imports from China, while Singapore went a step further, and banned it all.
posted by gemmy at 5:53 PM on September 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


"Why are they being told that breastmilk is less safe? It seems pretty bizarre unless you assume that the adult bodies are poisoned or something. There are some chemicals that are not too harmful for adults but bad for children."

It is not that the people are told that breast milk is bad but that the mothers can't breast feed anymore. Most of the people in China who use powered milk are the poor who must work. They leave there children in the care of older family members in the country when they go to work in the cities.

At the same time many rich in the city are starting to think that milk is a good thing to have in the diet, so the demand for milk has increassed and as with anything that has little over site there are problems.
posted by CollegeNelson at 6:53 PM on September 21, 2008


This is front-page news in New Zealand and has been most days since the story broke.

We are going to have national elections on November 8th, and this is the last thing a beleagured government coalition needs.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 6:58 PM on September 21, 2008


It seems to me that every time one of these terrible things happens in China, and there's been a lot lately - child slave labour in coal mines, the big freeze and resulting transportation mess, the Sichuan earthquake, and now this - that there's a standard pattern.

Local authorities downplay the incident until it gets too big to hide, central government promises to crack down on out of control local authorities, then the central govt realises the scope of the thing is so huge that they can't really handle it at all, so central government then starts trying to pretend it's not happening anymore. Every time this kind of thing occurs we see the limits of the CCP's power.
posted by awfurby at 7:15 PM on September 21, 2008


CollegeNelson is absolutely correct about one of the major causes of powdered milk being in such common use in China. It has a lot to do with so many working mothers.

I think it's important to note that milk, along with other dairy products, has taken on an important part of the Chinese diet these days - much more so than even just a decade ago. That despite the fact that a lot of people in China are lactose intolerant, and milk has never really been part of the Chinese diet. The Chinese government has actually been encouraging the populace to drink more milk, including instituting a school milk program.

When I lived in China, we were told (and this China Daily article seems to corroborate) that one of the main reasons behind this push to drink milk was basically height envy. The Chinese looked at Japan, and saw the average height of people in Japan increasing along with milk consumption.
posted by gemmy at 8:23 PM on September 21, 2008


Previously: Chinese Pet food and animal feed with melamine, cough syrup with antifreeze, toys with lead paint, poisoned toothpaste.

Not included in this list are the things that Korea's been dealing with, importing as much as it does from China (including, shamefully, more than half of the kimchi consumed here). Poisoned fish, toxic vegetables, and yes, kimchi tainted with both heavy metals and parasite eggs, to name just a few.

saw the average height of people in Japan increasing along with milk consumption.

Even after all my years here in Korea, it still surprises me sometimes to see how many younger people (say early 30's or younger) are really tall -- men and women both -- and how radically different they look from their parents and grandparents, many of whom, thanks to decades of poverty in the bad old days, are stereotypically stunted. It's all about the nutrition, even though industrial pollution these days isn't really helping.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 10:07 PM on September 21, 2008


Well, after the pet food exporters stopped buying melamine, the industrial waste peddlers in China had to dump it somewhere... Baby kindeys!!
posted by metaplectic at 11:53 PM on September 21, 2008


Why? Uh, perhaps a business culture based on bribes and "personal relationships" that would make the Mafia envious?

I strongly recommend that people worried about their health to not eat food from China whenever possible. Local gangsters are in charge of food production and chemical plants, much like 1905 America.
posted by benzenedream at 1:56 AM on September 22, 2008


Why can't China guarantee safe milk for its babies?

Things have really come full circle when the communists are now putting profits before people.
posted by three blind mice at 2:17 AM on September 22, 2008


I strongly recommend that people worried about their health to not eat food from China whenever possible.

And I seriously wish everyone good luck with that, for the reasons spelled out in benzenedream's link.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:26 AM on September 22, 2008


According to this morning's news, the count is up to 53,000 children have been made sick as a result of this.
posted by onhazier at 5:56 AM on September 22, 2008


I'm in Indonesia... I got the following email this morning, don't know if it's true or not. The source is good.

the following items have been recalled due to china's milk situation. M&M's, snickers, mento's yoghurt bottle, dove choc, oreo wafer sticks, monmilk, dutchlady sterilised milk, wall's all natural mango, mini poppers ice cream, magnum ice cream, moosandwich ice cream, mini cornetto and you can ice cream. Stores have been asked to remove them. If you have any of these in your house - bin them.
posted by BobsterLobster at 6:21 AM on September 22, 2008


I would love to go to my local Asian supermarket with one of these and see how many items would get banned the next day.

Most of what the FDA does is not that complex nor thorough. Consumers with a modicum of chemistry knowledge could really do some good by testing companies' claims, e.g. the Vitamin C Ribena Scandal.
posted by benzenedream at 11:36 AM on September 22, 2008


As I read post after post of people - presumably Western - who are baffled by the Chinese government's response to this situation, the following thoughts occurred to me.

While this may be an oversimplification, the fundamental issue is that the Chinese government does not care an iota for the health, safety, or welfare of the Chinese people. I think that's pretty clear. Individual Chinese may care, but the massive collective entity that is the Chinese Government simply isn't up to it.

Now let's look further on down the line...being purely speculative here. If a government does not care about its own citizens...how is the Western idea of Mutually Assured Destruction supposed to play out? There can be no nuclear deterrent if one side is perfectly willing to sacrifice everything, starting with its own citizens. I would assume the Chinese are willing to bet the numbers on that one. Not good for American nuclear policy.

No point in having a weapon that the target is completely unafraid of.

Forget I said that. I just hope that the Chinese do the right thing on this, and can make changes that prevent future occurrences. My heart goes out to the poor parents and the suffering kids.
posted by Xoebe at 12:52 PM on September 22, 2008


Fifty-three thousand?

That's horrifying. To put that in perspective, imagine the following:

A large sports stadium (e.g., SkydomeRogers Centre in Toronto)
Every seat is filled
With a baby
And every single one of them is sick because of this.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 1:45 PM on September 22, 2008


Now let's look further on down the line...being purely speculative here. If a government does not care about its own citizens...how is the Western idea of Mutually Assured Destruction supposed to play out? There can be no nuclear deterrent if one side is perfectly willing to sacrifice everything, starting with its own citizens. I would assume the Chinese are willing to bet the numbers on that one. Not good for American nuclear policy.

I'm not, uh, exactly sure where this is coming from. Firstly, the US has about 500 times as many warheads as China -- literally. Their ballistic missile submarine has never put to sea. They have about 20 missiles that can reach the continental United States. China has declared a 'no first-use' policy, which is something the United States used to have before the, ahm, apparently confusing "Bush Doctrine" declared that the United States could use them 'pre-emptively'

Secondly, people tend to live in cities, which is also where governments tend to keep their stuff.
posted by Comrade_robot at 8:04 PM on September 22, 2008


Man, I sure am glad no US corporation has ever engaged in a cover-up for the sake of profit.

Okay, that wasn't subtle. But China-bashers don't get subtle, so that's okay.

Tibetans are one of the ethnicities who fall in the "three kid" category. Which suggests the rightwing claims that the Chinese are trying to wipe out Tibetans are worth about as much as, well, what rightwing claims are usually worth.
posted by shetterly at 8:28 PM on September 22, 2008


Chinese lawyers pressured to drop milk cases
posted by homunculus at 10:02 AM on October 8, 2008


Headline writers asked to clean up spill
posted by Kirth Gerson at 12:31 PM on October 8, 2008


I keep noticing updates provided by the Chinese government. They may be censoring something, but it sure isn't this story.
posted by shetterly at 12:06 AM on October 16, 2008


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