In 2008, just ahead of the Beijing Olympics, news began to break of Chinese babies becoming sick because of adulterated milk formula.
The infant formula made by Sanlu, then the top-selling milk powder brand, was revealed to be contaminated with melamine. This caused kidney damage in more than 50,000 babies. The source of the contamination came from cattle farmers and wholesalers, who were using chemical additives to skirt protein-level tests on water-diluted milk. Nevertheless, Sanlu and other local brands were held responsible for the appalling safety standards.
More than a decade on, the scandal is still infamous and its impact long-lasting. Many parents still prefer to buy imported baby formula made from milk they feel they can trust.
Another bleak reality is the low-end market, previously dominated by Sanlu’s cheaper products, has almost ceased to exist. Millions of mothers in less affluent rural areas can no longer afford milk powder.
China has worked hard to clean up its dairy industry. About four years ago Beijing began promoting domestic formula makers again, insisting they were well-regulated and now safe. Last year the National Development and Reform Commission said its goal was to help domestic suppliers grow their market share to 60%, or up from 40% now.
News from Hunan this month about infants falling sick after consuming what was marketed as hypoallergenic formula will not help this target. The five children had been drinking the mixture for much of their early childhood and they are displaying signs of rickets, including enlarged skulls, stunted growth and cognitive impairment.
“They are malnourished… some of the symptoms are irreversible,” the China News Service quoted one medic as saying.
The parents began buying the drink called Bei An Min after doctors diagnosed their children with an allergy to cow milk protein.
The allergy affects roughly 2% of children globally, and for those that can’t drink breast milk, specialised formula is their main source of nutrition.
The problem is that Bei An Min was not a specialised formula – despite being promoted in shops as such, and despite highly suggestive labelling, including an English sentence declaring it to be “Deep Hydrolysis Protein and Lactose-free Formula Powder”.
It was in fact a cheap “protein shake” containing only a fraction of the nutrients that a baby needs.
Hunan Weile Health Industry, the company that makes Bei An Min, claims it never told shops to market the powder as a substitute for baby formula. But the retail chain at the heart of the scandal – Ai Ying Fang – says the producer encouraged it to market the product as an hypoallergenic formula. Bei An Min translates as “many amino acid allergenic”.
Children with mild forms of the allergy can drink formula where the milk proteins have been broken down by a process known as hydrolysation. But in extreme cases, the children with the allergy have to drink a formula based on amino acids.
The regulations surrounding the production of these specialised milk formulas are strict in China. But the production of protein shakes is relatively unrestricted. They also cost far less to make. A 400 gramme tin of Bei An Min costs Rmb300 ($56.29).
Sadly this is not a one-off for Hunan. Last year a near identical scandal involving a brand called Shuertai surfaced.
There the producers had even enlisted doctors to recommend the brand to parents of infants with milk allergies.
Some 80 parents lodged a complaint and local authorities determined that Shuertai’s makers were guilty of “false advertising”.
The doctors involved in the scandal were suspended for a year and the company was ordered to compensate the families to the tune of three times what they spent on the substitute formula.
The parents say the amount was insufficient to cover the lifetime of care some of these children will need.
The Global Times reported this week that none of the parents have received any compensation yet.
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