Retracing the Path Toxic Powder Took To Food in China

By Maureen Fan and Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, November 8, 2008

SHIJIAZHUANG, China -- Xue Jianzhong never posted a sign on his ground-floor shop, but somehow everyone knew what he was selling. Customers from all over this dairy farming region in the northeastern province of Hebei flocked to Xue's dusty street to buy special concoctions that he said would make milk more nutritious -- and more marketable.

Advertised as a "protein powder," the substance was sold in 44-pound bags and was tasteless, odorless and white, like talc. It wasn't cheap, about $1 a pound, but it could be mixed into inferior milk or even with specially treated water and the result would be a milklike liquid that would pass government quality tests.

It wasn't until September, when Xue was arrested in connection with the investigation into the poisoning of tens of thousands of babies across China, that it became clear his secret ingredient was a toxic industrial chemical called melamine.

Melamine can mimic protein in nutrition tests for milk and in products such as wheat gluten and chicken feed. But when ingested in large amounts, it can cause kidney stones or death in children and animals.

The problem is not just a domestic one. Melamine has surfaced in foods sold across Asia and, earlier, in pet food that poisoned animals in the United States, tainting China's reputation as the world's factory.

How the same substance that had killed pets and was officially banned in China as an additive in food just last year wound up in baby formula and so many other food products is a story of desperate farmers, complicit chemical companies, and government officials who looked the other way. All were part of a system that allowed the network of melamine dealers to thrive.

Farmers and companies involved in food and feed production said that the doctoring of their products was an open secret in the countryside but that the salesmen had told them it was harmless.

"Actually, every milk collection center bought a lot of melamine," said Wang, a 60-year-old farmer in the village of Yudi, in the Shijiazhuang area, who would not give her full name because she feared retribution. "Everybody did this."

China's melamine trade is run by a criminal syndicate that has relied on chemical companies and underground laboratories for its supply. The trade has been supported by a customer base so eager for the substance that for years it turned a blind eye to its potentially deadly effects. Traditionally used in the manufacture of plastics and leather, melamine has made its way into the food supply in a way that was never supposed to happen.

Initially covered up by officials afraid of losing their jobs and besmirching the Beijing Olympic Games, the melamine contamination scandal began with infant milk formula that killed at least four infants and sickened 54,000 babies. It soon spread to candy, instant coffee, yogurt, biscuits and other products made with Chinese milk, prompting bans or recalls in 16 countries.

In recent weeks the toxin has been discovered in eggs and in animal feed, sparking fears that tainted foods go well beyond dairy products and may include fish, shrimp, beef and poultry.

"Almost all the animal feed companies I know added protein powder to their product until this September. So did our factory," said a sales manager surnamed Li, in a branch factory of the Liuhe Group, a large animal feed company in Shandong province. "Of course, no one dares to add it now."


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