Page 2 of 3   <       >

Retracing the Path Toxic Powder Took To Food in China

The problem of melamine was supposed to have been fixed long ago.

When Chinese authorities discovered in the summer of 2007 that the chemical was behind the poisoning of thousands of cats and dogs in the United States, it was explicitly banned from both food and feed. Melamine is now considered a controlled substance in China, and its production and use are supposed to be strictly supervised by the government.

The government has bragged about its efforts to overhaul its regulatory system, shutter tens of thousands of factories and step up inspections. But it is clear that loopholes remain.

Xue's shop is in Xingtang county, just 30 miles north of the Shijiazhuang headquarters of the Sanlu Group, the dairy company whose milk powder is at the center of the widening scandal. Xue, who pocketed $150 for every ton of powder he sold, was part of a semiprofessional business that operated like any other start-up, according to farmers and other potential customers who were solicited by melamine dealers.

There were legitimate-looking stores, representatives at milk collection centers and even door-to-door salesmen. Customers with questions about how to use the melamine knew that technical assistance was just a phone call away.

In the impoverished countryside, farmers said they were quick to embrace the magic offered by con artists such as Xue, as the price of raw materials soared and government price controls squeezed their profits. During a recent program on state-run CCTV, Xue said that he himself drank only fresh milk, not the mixed kind, and that he knew melamine was harmful. He acknowledged that he sold it "to make more money."

While the income of China's rural residents has skyrocketed in recent years, the increase has not matched the pace of growth in the gross domestic product. Several dairy farmers said that over the past year, they have barely broken even.

The promise of greater profits was enticing, though not everyone was convinced.

"Last year, I got calls from people who said they could increase the protein in my feed by 50 percent, but I didn't believe them. It's impossible, unless you're cheating," said Sun Qingqing, sales manager of Hongsheng Feather Powder Factory, an animal feed company. "After the scandal, they disappeared or moved underground. I don't know how much they make, but those people drove Mercedes-Benz cars and BMWs."

Until recently, the salesmen would come every few months to Guo Junfeng's dairy farm in Shanxi province. "Even if you don't have milk, mix this substance with water and you will have something that is just like milk!" Guo remembers one of them telling him.

The salesmen were hawking two grades of the powder. The first contained whey protein, which can be collected from cheese made from cow's milk. That was the cheaper type and cost about $44 a bag, but it didn't always work perfectly. The second kind, which cost roughly $118 a bag, was more mysterious. The bag had some English writing on it that Guo could not decipher. The vendors said they couldn't read the letters either, and they could not explain what exactly was in the mix. But they said you could use the powder to create milk from any liquid.

Many of Guo's fellow farmers in the province were dazzled by the idea of increasing their profits as much as 300 percent, he said.

<       2        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company