HONG KONG - Once again, China's most vulnerable citizens - its babies - are the
central figures in a food-safety scandal. Two years ago, milk powder tainted
with the industrial chemical melamine killed six infants and left 300,000 more
suffering from kidney stones. Now, some Chinese babies are growing breasts, and
their parents are blaming the Nasdaq-listed company that produces the baby
formula they were drinking.
But tests conducted by the besieged Ministry of Health have exonerated Synutra
International, based in the northern coastal city of Qingdao. No abnormalities
were found in samples of Synutra's milk powder or any other formula that was
tested, the ministry announced on Sunday. Laboratory tests of 42 Synutra
samples found no trace of added hormones that could have led to
the premature development of four infant girls. But this may in fact increase
the parents' anxiety: if this was not caused by tainted milk then by what?
The health ministry launched the probe after local authorities in the central
province of Hubei reportedly refused parents' demands for an investigation.
Three infant girls in the provincial capital of Wuhan and another in Beijing
developed breasts after allegedly drinking the Synutra formula. The girls, aged
four to 15 months, were found to have levels of the hormones estradiol and
prolactin (which stimulate the production of breast milk) exceeding that of an
average adult woman. Last week, Chinese media reported that similar cases were
also found in other provinces such as Guangdong, Hunan, Jiangxi, Sichuan,
Shanxi and Liaoning.
A panel of nine endocrine, pediatric and food-safety experts were assembled by
the ministry at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention to study
the case. The team gathered samples from the markets in Wuhan and Beijing where
the suspect milk powder was purchased and from the homes of the infant girls.
Samples of some other brands were also gathered from the markets and tested.
From the beginning, Synutra has stoutly defended the integrity of its products
and threatened legal action against the media for false reporting.
"While we offer our sympathy to any families experiencing health challenges, we
firmly believe that our products are not involved in the claims recently made,"
Synutra boss Liang Zhang said. "We firmly believe [the tests] will illustrate
our unwavering product quality and commitment to consumer safety."
But then, it was exposed by Chinese media that the company might have misled
consumers by claiming the milk for making the baby formula in question was
imported from "clean farms in the EU [European Union]". Synutra said the milk
supplier for two of its baby formulas was Fonterra in New Zealand and the raw
material for its third baby formula was from a domestic supplier in
Fonterra issued a statement saying it was "100% confident" in the quality of
its milk supplies. Since New Zealand has strict laws prohibiting the use of
"hormonal growth promotants" on milking cows, the company said, there is no way
its milk could be responsible for the premature development of infant girls in
Disturbing as it was to contemplate breasts on babies, the greater fear sparked
by this case, on top of many previous food scares, is that there may be
nightmares hidden in China's food chain that no one yet knows about. The 2008
tainted milk powder scandal, in which 22 Chinese dairies were named and shamed,
prompted a raft of new promises and regulations on food safety, but the
unthinkable continues to happen.
A total of 21 dairy officials were convicted for their roles in that scandal;
two of them were put to death last year. Still, melamine-tainted milk continues
to flow across the country. In July, for example, authorities in northwestern
Gansu province seized 76 tons of milk powder that contained up to 500 times the
level of melamine allowed by law. The powder was traced to a dairy factory in
Qinghai province, which borders Gansu.
Tainted milk powder was also discovered this year in northeastern Jilin
province, while dozens of stores in the southwestern province of Guizhou were
found to be selling contaminated milk products.
Melamine is commonly used to make plastics, fertilizers and concrete. When
added to milk or animal feed, its high nitrogen content boosts protein
readings, masking substandard products and endangering public health. The
practice, widespread in China's dairy industry, was supposed to end after the
shock of 2008. But dairy farmers keep using melamine for one simple reason: it
boosts their profits as well as the perceived protein levels of their milk, and
regulation remains spotty.
Indeed, some of the same tainted milk powder that was supposed to be destroyed
after the horrific revelations of two years ago was reportedly repackaged and
sold again to consumers who had been led to believe that a new and more
reliable quality-control regime had kicked in.
Against this dark background, some Chinese babies were now growing breasts and,
although their condition had nothing to do with melamine, it seems almost
inevitable that traumatized parents would seek to blame the baby formula.
Memories of 2008 are still burning hot, fueled by continuing revelations about
tainted dairy products and typical stonewalling by provincial bureaucrats whose
first instinct is to cover up rather than probe any potential scandal. Also in
recent memory, 13 babies died in 2004 after drinking a steady diet of formula
that had little nutritional value.
But the four cases of premature puberty had the makings of a false alarm from
the start. The cause of premature development is not always clear. The
condition has been linked to brain disorders or injuries; diet is considered an
As it turned out, the health ministry's tests vindicated Synutra, whose shares
have fallen 35% since the story broke, and it appears that the parents of the
infant girls jumped to a false conclusion rooted in past scandals.
China's food regulators can breathe a sigh of relief, but that hardly puts them
in the clear. The parents' fears were real, and they are widespread. Rocked by
scandal two years ago and buffeted by additional revelations since then, the
country's food-safety chain cannot be trusted. No one knows where the next
horror may be lurking - and that's the scariest part for consumers already
caught up in a frightening story.
Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at