Saturday, September 27, 2008

Cry Foul Over Spoiled Milk

As predicted in our previous entry, the melamine-in-Chines-milk scandal continues to grow - and it's too early to say the problem is behind us. The initial reaction of "don't worry, Chinese dairy products can't be sold in the US" has now been replaced with "non dairy creamer recalled in US". It also appears that Chinese dairy ingredients, blended into other food components, can be a pathway for contaminated products to get into cookies, sauces, and packets of dried pizza cheese around the world.

There are still a lot of questions unresolved.

1. The Chinese government ordered a crackdown on food adulteration after the pet food poisonings, and created a new agency to oversee testing. In a classic case of bureaucratic incompetence, however, Sanlu and 21 other companies considered in good standing were exempt from inspections by the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine.
2. How many dairy farmers adulterated their products this way? How did they discover the adding melamine method, and did they know of the consequences of adding melamine?
3. How can consumers know whether their products contain potentially contaminated products?
4. What is China going to do to rebuild trust in its products - trust that is currently battered and shredded? Adding regulation and reactive testing are unlikely to be sufficient.

Expect more revelations before the week is out.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Yet More Bad Milk

The pernicious nature of food contamination is such that it's only over when it's over. Every headline about the melamine contamination of dairy products in China increases the count of children affected. First it was 1,000, then 6,000. Yesterday it was 12,900, now it's 50,000.

However, this is more than just the unpredictable nature of contamination. The counterfeit milk (it was diluted and then treated with melamine to fool protein tests) has affected 22 brands, not just one as originally believed - and shattered China's efforts to create a trustworthy food supply. The recall was late and sluggish.
The Sanlu company, China’s largest producer of powdered baby formula, received complaints months ago about suspected problems, but the company waited until Aug. 2 to tell local authorities, who waited until Sept. 9 to tell provincial authorities, the provincial authorities said. Sanlu finally recalled 700 tons of the formula on Sept. 11.

One can only wonder why testing for melamine is not a standard practice for manufacturers receiving milk - apparently it takes only minutes. Brands could then provide independent testing certification, and make the information available to consumers to verify. Without this sort of transparency, trust will be tough to rebuild.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Adulterated Baby Formula Haunts China's Children Again

Once again, tainted infant formula has shown up in China, killing at least two babies and sickening at least 1,200 more. This time melamine was been added to milk powder to disguise the fact that it had been watered down. (The melamine fools the tests done to check the formula's nitrogen content - but is highly toxic and causes severe kidney damage). A similar scam killed thousands of American pets, after melamine was substituted for a pet food ingredient (gluten) from China.

Back in 2004, thirteen babies died of malnutrition and almost 200 were hospitalized in eastern China's Anhui province after being fed substandard milk. The counterfeit milk powder, coincidentally the same Sanlu brand as affected in this recent scandal, contained no nutrition, causing infants' heads to swell while their bodies starved, according to Chinese media reports then.

A staggering proportion of food ingredients are imported from China. For example, China manufactures 90% of the world's vitamin C. Chinese pharmaceutical companies also dominate much of the world market in the production of antibiotics, analgesics, enzymes and primary amino acids. China makes 70% of the world's penicillin, 50% of its aspirin and 35% of its acetaminophen (often sold under the brand name Tylenol), as well as the bulk of vitamins A, B12 and E. [see here for reference]

The majority of these factories meet global safety standards - but many at the bottom certainly do not. While country of origin labeling is finally being mandated in certain foods (albeit, not processed food - which often contain added vitamins) ... the factory of origin is not.