By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, September 28, 2008
BEIJING -- Like thousands of other parents, Gu Yinghua took his child to the kidney unit of a local children's hospital for free testing as China's tainted-milk scandal continued to widen.
Another hospital had declared the 3-year-old boy healthy despite a steady diet of two brands of milk powder and two kinds of milk linked to a toxin that can cause kidney stones. But then his face began to swell.
The second hospital diagnosed kidney disease but not kidney stones, telling a disbelieving Gu to pay upfront for treatment that could last six months to two years. Gu and his wife, Xu Chongju, said they feel doubly cheated and are certain their son's illness is connected to China's latest food safety scare, which has outraged Chinese consumers, embarrassed the government and spurred food recalls in Europe and Asia.
"Those milk powder manufacturers put a lot of money into TV commercials and brag how magical their products are. Of course we parents will think those powders are good for the baby's health," said Xu, who breast-fed her son for a year before turning to formula. "We feel deep regret about this, but what's the use of regret? There is no regret medicine in the world."
Despite official assurances that the problem is under control, the crisis appears to be spreading -- to cake in Hong Kong, a popular brand of candy in Asia and Britain, ham and sausage products in Japan and even a zoo near Shanghai where baby animals were fed formula. More than a dozen countries have banned or recalled Chinese dairy products, and the European Union announced that it was banning all baby food from China containing even trace amounts of milk.
On Friday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommended that consumers avoid Mr. Brown instant coffee and White Rabbit candy, both made in China.
The World Health Organization said the problem has been exacerbated by "a combination of ignorance and deliberate failure to report."
Chinese health officials have confirmed the deaths of four infants who had kidney stones caused by drinking tainted milk powder. More than 54,000 babies have been sickened, including 12,892 who have been hospitalized, officials said. State media have reported that two other babies with kidney stones died this summer and that their parents said they had used a brand of tainted milk powder. But local officials have not confirmed a link to the scandal.
After the glittering success of the Olympic Games, experts and commentators have concluded that there are two Chinas. Elites live in a modern environment protected from an unsafe food supply. But most people live in a country that has made few improvements since 2004, when at least 12 infants died and more than 200 suffered malnutrition after drinking fake baby formula with no nutritional value.
Dozens of people were arrested then, and dozens have been arrested in the current crisis. The government had vowed to step up inspections and improve standards, just as it promised during a massive food and product safety scare last year.
Reporter Jian Guangzhou became frustrated with state-controlled media reports mentioning that formula had sickened some babies but not identifying the company involved. In a Sept. 11 post on Tianya.cn, a Chinese social portal, Jian named Sanlu Dairy Co. as the maker of the tainted formula and lifted the veil on a host of familiar problems: greedy businessmen, unscrupulous advertisers, local officials worried about negative publicity and police determined to halt protests.
Individual farmers, accused of adding the toxin to their milk to make it appear high in protein, are now throwing away milk that no one wants to buy. Dairy factories, accused of not properly testing the milk they bought, have lost credibility and trust.
Twenty-two dairy brands have been found to contain melamine, an industrial chemical used to make plastics and glue. Melamine raises nitrogen readings, thereby making milk appear to be high in protein. In high doses, it is toxic and can cause kidney stones or kidney failure in babies.
Sanlu, a 50-year-old company with 18 percent of the baby formula market before the scandal, initially denied the allegations. According to accounts confirmed by media reports and health officials, the company tried to buy off critics and cover up the contamination, which had been detected as early as December. There were complaints in March, and melamine was confirmed in company tests in early August. But a full recall was not ordered until after Jian posted his exposé.
Sanlu is such a big name that it and 21 other companies considered in good standing were exempt from inspections by the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine. The watchdog agency's director, Li Changjiang, and several Communist Party officials in Hebei province, where Sanlu is based, lost their jobs last week.
The tragedy would not have been as widespread if more Chinese babies were breast-fed, said Jorgen Schlundt, WHO's director of food safety. Chinese breast-feeding rates have plummeted as more women return to work early and families respond to the aggressive advertising of formula companies, experts said. Less than 50 percent of babies younger than 6 months breast-feed.
But perhaps the main reason for the failure to prevent the contamination and its tragic results is China's inability to control the behavior of tens of thousands of farmers and milk collection center employees, Schlundt and other experts said.
"You need to have a system where you have a culture of openness and quick reporting. . . . It's always a problem when you have many separate authorities that might not have the same culture of reporting," Schlundt said.
China is working on a new food safety law and has placed its Food and Drug Administration under the Ministry of Health. But the country has as many as 16 organizations responsible for its food chain, "and that results in a system that is not optimal," Schlundt said.
Even now, authorities appear more concerned about shutting down protests than encouraging open discussion, said Yin, a Beijing father who has organized several groups of angry parents through the instant-message service QQ.com. Yin spoke on the condition that only his surname be used, because of pressure from government officials.
"It's ridiculous. The company is only worried about defending itself. This is what makes me angry the most," Yin said.
Yin posted an online article by a Beijing lawyer calling for Li, the watchdog agency director, to resign, but government censors deleted the post.
On Friday, 20 lawyers in 15 provinces received threatening visits or calls from their local legal affairs bureaus warning them not to join a group to help the victims of tainted milk, a lawyer in the group said. They were told they could lose their licenses if they did not withdraw from the effort, the lawyer said.
"Our goal is not to help the victims sue the dairy companies. We just want to help them with advice," the lawyer said, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. "We believe the government will eventually have a solution, so it's important to preserve the evidence. We don't understand why we are being stopped."
Du Qunjun, a former salesman for several dairy factories, said that unless the milk testing process is overhauled, other problems would be found with the milk supply. Now farmers add melamine. But previously, they used urea, a component of urine, to falsely improve protein counts, he said.
"The biggest problem for the industry is actually the source of fresh milk. If this problem is not solved, sooner or later there will be an even bigger scandal than this," Du said.
In the summer, farmers use stimulants to increase the milk production of their cows, Du said. They also use antibiotics and preservatives. "It's even worse with stimulants because they accumulate in the body. Farmers spend nearly $1,500 to buy a cow, so they will do everything they can to make the most of it."
For now, inspections of raw milk have been stepped up.
"They should have caught this scandal earlier, because we all know many farmers have been selling tainted milk," said Chen Yanhui, manager of a milk farm for Sanyuan Dairy Co. on the outskirts of Beijing. "But in the past, nobody checked for melamine and held the farmers responsible.
"Some of those small farmers make even more money than us because they've gotten away with selling tainted milk. We are not making money, we're just barely breaking even," he said.
Researchers Liu Songjie and Zhang Jie contributed to this report.