When the scope of the adulteration became clear to an appalled world, heads rolled. Two of the perpetrators eventually were executed, and nineteen others were sentenced to prison terms.
In the run-up to the 2010 Shanghai World Exposition, scheduled to begin on May 1st and to close on October 31st, a steady stream of news stories about food safety and water safety is issuing from the press office – just as was the case before the 2008 Olympics. We're hearing about new developments in China's dairy industry, and an innovative test developed at East China Normal University that can verify the safety of drinking water within 15 minutes. We were fed similar stories prior to the Olympics in 2008.
This time, though, some things are different. China has been working hard in the last year to clean up certain aspects of its food safety system. A number of new food safety standards have been developed and are being implemented. More significantly, the country has been enlisting the help of outsiders to effect its food safety upgrades.
The PRC hosted its third annual China International Food Safety & Quality Conference in October, presenting speakers from the World Health Organization, the United States, the European Commission, Hungary, Hong Kong, Canada and China. In December, a delegation of senior food safety officials from the PRC spent two weeks in New Zealand, participating in a series of study workshops with the New Zealand Food Safety Authority.
The most encouraging development, though, is China's reaction to the latest milk adulteration scheme. The Shanghai Daily recently reported the December arrest of the general manager and two other employees of Shaanxi Jinqiao Dairy Co, and the seizure of five tons of melamine-adulterated milk products.
According to the news report, approximately 5 tons of milk powder had first been seized in October 2008, after the milk was found to contain high levels of melamine. But the Dairy's general manager, Liu Ping, apparently asked for a retest. He managed to swap samples so that the retest produced a satisfactory result, and the milk powder was released. The powder was warehoused by Shaanxi Jinqiao Dairy until September 2009, when the company received an order for milk powder from Nanning Yueqian Food Additive Co.
Liu and the other two employees surreptitiously repackaged the adulterated milk powder and shipped it, together with an additional 5 tons of untested milk, to Nanning. Fortunately, the food additive company tested the milk products, detected melamine, and called in the authorities.
Eighteen months ago, this story probably would have been kept secret. Indeed, Nanning likely would have been pressured to withdraw its complaint – just as Sanlu Dairy was pressured to wink at melamine adulteration in its milk for several months leading up to the Beijing Olympics.
A psychologist friend of mine once observed that before he could help a patient, that individual had to acknowledge the existence of a problem, and had to want to work on a resolution.
Change doesn't happen in an instant. It will take years for China to install a fully functioning food safety system. But the country's leaders have taken the first steps in this complex journey. They have acknowledged the need, and have decided to work towards a solution.
Is there a lesson here for US legislators?