Unpalatable truths in China's food safety By Kent Ewing
HONG KONG - Executive heads are starting to roll in China's tainted-milk
scandal as the central government prepares to enact a raft of food-safety
regulations aimed at reassuring the world about the battered "Made in China"
label. But, even as this effort to remake China's image as a producer of safe,
high-quality goods continues, more tainted products have come to light.
It is two steps forward and one step back in the campaign to develop a valid
regulatory regime. This is going to be a long, hard journey.
The recent trial of the head of the company at the center of the milk scandal,
in which at least six children died and nearly
300,000 were left ill, was meant to appease the angry parents of deceased and
stricken children and shock the discredited dairy industry into urgently needed
reforms. Instead, the reported confession of Tian Wenhua, the 66-year-old
chairwoman of the now bankrupt Sanlu Group, has been greeted with scorn and
According to state media, Tian pleaded guilty to charges of producing and
selling fake products and endangering public safety and could be sentenced to
death - although the death penalty seems unlikely for a crime of this sort.
Three other top Sanlu executives were also charged at the trial, while another
17 people allegedly involved in the production, buying and selling of milk
spiked with the industrial chemical melamine have also recently faced the music
Melamine - ordinarily used to make plastics, fertilizer and cleaning agents -
was added to milk by unscrupulous processors because its high nitrogen content
registers as protein during testing. It has been found in everything from baby
formula to chocolate bars to biscuits. It has also been detected in eggs,
traced to chicken feed. In high concentrations, melamine can cause kidney
stones and even renal failure.
While 22 dairy companies are implicated in the milk scandal, which broke last
September, the Sanlu executives are so far the only ones charged. This leaves
skeptics wondering whether Chinese officials are not once again up to their old
scapegoating tricks: a huge scandal breaks, a few unlucky culprits fall and
then it is business as usual as the corrupt system keeps chugging along. Is
this another version of the same old rotten story?
Let's hope not, but comments made by the chief executive of New Zealand dairy
giant Fonterra, which has been forced to write off its 43% stake in Sanlu at a
loss of US$120 million, put a dent in that hope.
Flatly rejecting state media reports of Tian's confession, Andrew Ferrier told
the New Zealand Herald: "She seemed to live and breathe Sanlu. She only wanted
the best for Sanlu, and it would be very sad if she's found guilty of any
Although Fonterra was not represented at the one-day court hearing for Tian and
other Sanlu executives, the Herald quoted another company spokesman as saying
that Tian had "absolutely and unequivocally" pleaded not guilty.
Only state media were allowed to cover the trial, so it is not clear what
transpired in court that day. Fonterra's protests aside, however, it is hard to
believe that the Sanlu chairwoman is not guilty as charged, whether she
confessed or not.
The record shows that consumer complaints of tainted baby formula and sick and
dying children started last May, but Sanlu did not submit a written report to
the government of Hebei province's capital city, Shijiazhuang, where the
company is headquartered, until early August. And it was a month later before
Shijiazhuang officials blew the whistle that attracted the central government's
- and then the world's - attention.
Does anyone smell a cover-up, given the events happened to correspond with the
Beijing Summer Olympic Games, held August 8 to 24? After all, it is impossible
to overestimate the importance of the Olympics to the Chinese leadership and to
the nation as a whole. It was the country's international coming-out party, and
toxic milk and dead and sick children definitely would have spoiled that
Everyone knew that, especially Tian, her fellow executives and Shijiazhuang
city officials, several of whom have been sacked. Their guilt seems obvious.
It seems equally obvious, however, that heads should roll at the other 21
companies involved in the scandal and that the probable legion of local
officials who abetted the dairy industry in this lethal fraud should also have
But don't count on that. The corruption runs too embarrassingly deep to be
fully accounted for by all of the many individuals involved. The list of
culprits would go on and on, and trials would stretch out for years.
Instead, the 22 companies have taken collective responsibility by offering a
public apology and agreeing to a compensation plan for victims that has left
grieving families screaming for more.
"We are sorry for the harm we have brought to children," the companies said in
a mobile phone text message. "We offer our sincere apologies and beg for
If affected families were not satisfied with the medium used for this brief mea
culpa, they were even more unhappy with the 1.1 billion yuan (US$161
million) compensation package. The plan reportedly offers a one-off payment of
US$290 to each victim who suffered "mild symptoms", $4,400 to children who
needed surgery, $29,000 to families of children who died and free medical
treatment to all children with illnesses related to melamine until the age of
The plan only begins to address the financial needs of the many families that
have already spent their life savings on their sick children. Those parents are
angry and making their anger known. Five of them were arrested this month in
Beijing on their way to a press conference at which they hoped to air their
Despite those arrests, other aggrieved parents held an impromptu streetside
media briefing at which they demanded much bigger one-off payments and
continued free medical treatment for affected children after their 18th
birthday. They are unlikely to be appeased by the conviction of Tian and her
fellow executives in a show trial that is really only the tip of the iceberg.
What's needed is wholesale reform of the now decimated dairy industry and of
China's food-safety regime as whole. With that in mind, the central government
has promised a raft of quality control measures aimed at reassuring the public
both at home and abroad. These include tightening controls on how animals are
bred and how raw milk is produced and marketed.
Standardized testing, regular inspections and “severe” punishment of those who
violate safety standards are also part of the plan. The ultimate goal is, by
2011, to create a mass-producing dairy industry to replace the patchwork of
unreliable operators now in place.
But this is not the first time China has pledged to reform its food-safety
record. There were similar promises in 2007 after pet food tainted with
melamine killed or sickened thousands of cats and dogs in the US. And there
have been other scandals involving toys coated in lead paint, toxic toothpaste,
exploding automobile tires and more.
While there is no question that the vast majority of Chinese-made products are
safe, there are clearly big cracks in the regulatory system that have caused
the Made in China label to take a battering over the past several years.
Those cracks are still there.
In the wake of the milk scandal last year, the chemical additive was found in
chicken feed and eggs. More recently, it was discovered in 1,500 boxes of
biscuits intended for export to Hong Kong and Singapore. But the good news is,
this time the tainted product was discovered (and destroyed) before it was
That is cause for hope.
Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at