Monday, September 15, 2008

China's Food Safety Mindset: Has Anything Changed?

Two babies have died and at least 1,253 have been afflicted with kidney stones after being fed melamine-contaminated Sanlu brand powdered milk baby formula.

Sanlu Group has issued a public recall of 700 tonnes of baby milk formula produced before August 6, 2008. Chinese police, as part of a government investigation into how the melamine was introduced into milk sold to Sanlu, have questioned 78 people and detained 19 of them. China is conducting a nation-wide inspection of baby milk powder in response to the contamination crisis, and has promised to publicize the results. And the Chinese government has announced that the sick infants will benefit from an all-out treatment effort at government expense.

That's the good news. Here's the rest.
  • Melamine was added deliberately to milk supplied to Sanlu Group, or to the milk powder, in an effort to boost the apparent protein content – just as was done in the case of wheat gluten that found its way last year into pet foods manufactured in the United States and Canada.
  • Sanlu received complaints about the milk powder as early as March. Internally-conducted tests of the milk powder detected melamine in August. Yet the company remained silent.
  • Sanlu informed its Board of Directors of the contamination problem on August 2nd. Fonterra (the New Zealand dairy cooperative that holds a 43% share of Sanlu) urged the company to initiate a public recall immediately. Sanlu declined to do so, opting instead for a trade-level recall.
  • Sanlu's initial reaction when the story of sick infants first broke was to blame a "market pirate" for the poisoning. Only after the government investigation began did Sanlu change their story.
  • A spokesman for the Gansu provincial health department stated that the department had investigated a hospital report about babies with kidney disease received on July 16th. All of the infants had been fed Sanlu baby milk powder formula. Gansu forwarded the report to the Ministry of Health, but no significant action was taken.

The Chinese government has been working for several months on a new food safety law. The most recent draft highlights the "social responsibility" of food producers and marketers. 

But it will take more than fine words in a government document to change the country's food safety mindset. It will take a major education and regulatory effort on the part of the Chinese government to bring the safety of the domestic food supply up to a reasonable standard.

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