The country's leaders promised that food served in the Olympic village and at the various venues would be safe. And they delivered. Now that the games are over, China finds itself the focus of an international food adulteration scandal.
Four infants have died, more than 40,000 have been taken to hospital for examination or treatment, and 12,892 of them remain hospitalized – 104 in serious condition. Melamine has been detected in powdered milk, fluid milk and other dairy products manufactured and sold by China's largest dairy companies, including Yili, Mengniu and Sanlu.
Melamine is an industrial chemical that is high in nitrogen. Standard food lab analytical methods to determine protein content simply measure the amount of nitrogen present in a sample. Therefore, food that is adulterated with melamine appears to have a high protein content. Special tests are needed to determine whether the apparent protein content is real, or is due to the addition of melamine.
The ripples from China's melamine adulteration scandal have spread well beyond the country's borders. Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous territory of China, has reported one confirmed illness in a 3-year old child who had been fed Yili brand high-calcium, low-fat milk for the past 15 months. Taiwan also has found melamine – in instant coffee, milk tea, and chicken-and-corn soup, all of which contain non-dairy creamer.
As melamine is detected in an increasing range of products, more countries are closing their borders to foods from China, and are removing Chinese foodstuffs from store shelves. Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Singapore, have all announced bans and recalls. The United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and the Philippines are among those countries that have alerted their Asian communities to the problem, and are taking precautionary steps – including random sampling of retail products – to ensure that no suspect foods are available for sale.
The Chinese government has been in damage-control mode – both internally and internationally – since the melamine adulteration problem became public. Arrests, dismissals and resignations have been announced, government leaders have visited sick babies in hospital, and the government has instructed that no expense be spared in treating hospitalized victims.
Ironically, Beijing is playing host this coming week to the China International Food Safety & Quality Conference, and Bill Marler is one of the invited speakers. Marler reported receiving an email from the conference organizers the other day. The message read, in part,
"As a reminder, all speakers are expected to exercise diplomacy during your presentation. The CIFSQ Conference is intended to encourage healthy constructive dialogue and information exchange amongst industry players, government regulators and the scientific community to enhance food safety for consumers."
Perhaps the Chinese government should have invited the parents of some of hospitalized infants to join their constructive dialogue.