Like a virus that won’t burn out, melamine – an industrial chemical that boosts protein levels but can cause kidney stones in high dosages – has made its way back into dairy products in China.
Early this week, police arrested four suspects and seized 76 tonnes of melamine-laced dairy products. The melamine ingredients were apparently left over from a milk scandal two years ago that killed six babies and sickened thousands more. The tainted products should have been destroyed but instead were hoarded. According to the Global Times, the milk powder seized contained 500 times the maximum allowable level of the chemical.
Authorities pledged to do a better job after the 2008 scandal. President Hu Jintao said such incidents “show that some officials have lost a sense of principles, of the public interest, of responsibilities, of attention to [people’s] suffering.” The government also passed new safety laws last year to restore confidence.
Two years on, critics are questioning how much has changed. One concern is that much of the contaminated milk powder from the earlier scandal has not been properly destroyed. Wang Dingmian, former director of the Dairy Association of China, told the Global Times in February that there was at least 100,000 tonnes of undestroyed toxic milk still on the market.
Last month, Southern Weekly also ran an in-depth article about the new dairy safety standards, including the scrapping of a rule that had allowed limited amounts of melamine to be used. Some industry observers say that the standards are still far too lax.
Take protein content. The new standard dictates that the percentage of protein concentration in raw milk needs to be 2.8% or higher (that is, every 100 grammes of raw milk needs to contain at least 2.8 grammes of protein).
But experts say that is a lower amount than the previous standard, which was set back in 1986. Most Western countries now require at least 3% protein content in raw milk.
“It is like turning the clock back 25 years,” says Zeng Shouying, a former deputy leader of the National Dairy Standardisation Centre. “Which country in the world would lower the standard to such an extent? At present the quality of raw milk in China is obviously the lowest in the world.”
Others disagree. Wu Heping, secretary general of Heilongjiang Dairy Association, says the new rules are more realistic, in part because many dairy cows are fed with low-quality feed that leads to low protein levels.
Part of the problem is that the government is worried that – if it sets the standards too high – the dairy industry will “collapse,” says Wang Zhutian, deputy director of the National Institute of Nutrition and Food Safety at the China Centre for Disease Control.
Changes in regulations can also have unintended consequences. Requiring a higher protein quota encouraged abusive practices in the first place, as farmers tried to fool inspectors with melamine’s high nitrogen content, making protein levels appear higher.
The rule changes are having an impact elsewhere too. The 21CN Business Herald reported last month that the price of alfalfa (or lucerne grass) has seen a fivefold rise since last year. Alfalfa now comprises more than half of the feed used in the industry, as it boasts protein content that’s richer than other grain feeds, says the newspaper. After melamine was banned, larger dairy companies like Mengniu and Yili have been stocking up, although domestic supply had paradoxically fallen, as farmers switched to other agricultural products. That means China can only meet about a fifth of its alfalfa demand. To make up for the shortage, imports are up – mainly from the US. But prices are up too. “The cost of alfalfa has gone from Rmb400 a tonne in 2009 to Rmb2,000,” complained dairy farmer Chen Huiming.
In the meantime, Su Zhi, in charge of health supervision at the Ministry of Health, told Xinhua that more breaches in food safety are likely. “With such a huge territory and population in China, it’s hard to avoid all food safety threats and to put all unscrupulous businessmen under scrutiny,” Su conceded.
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