I am catching up on both sleep and US News reports. This morning I read the New York Times summary of the events so far in the Sanlu Fonterra Melamine Baby Formula Disaster – “Despite Warnings, China’s Regulators Failed to Stop Milk,” and the Washington Posts summary – “China’s Tainted-Milk Crisis Grows Despite Official Claims.”

Since I left China, the recalls have mounted.  Now, not only is powdered milk being recalled, but various other products, including White Rabbit candy, are being pulled from store shelves throughout the world.  More than 50,000 children, most aged under three, have fallen ill after drinking China’s top-selling infant formula, made by the Sanlu Group, a joint venture with New Zealand dairy giant Fonterra.  At least four children have died and almost 13,000 are still in the hospital, at least 100 of them in critical condition from kidney failure.  After spending a week in China, my guess is that those numbers are grossly under reported.   Here are some more startling facts:

December 2007 – Sanlu Fonterra had first received complaints about its powdered baby formula.

March 2008 – Sanlu Fonterra had hired private companies to test its milk powder for contaminants.  Sanlu Fonterra never issued any public warnings and never stopped promoting its products.

May 18 – After the devastating earthquake in Sichuan Province, the Sanlu Fonterra made a much-publicized donation of $1.25 million worth of baby formula for infants orphaned or displaced by the catastrophe.

June 30 – A mother in Hunan Province had written a detailed letter pleading for help from the food quality agency, the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (organization that sponsored the Food Safety Conference I attended).  The letter, posted on the agency’s Web site, described rising numbers of infants at a local children’s hospital who were suffering from kidney stones after drinking powdered formula made by Sanlu Fonterra.  The watchdog agency’s director, Li Changjiang, and several Communist Party officials in Hebei province, where Sanlu Fonterra is based, lost their jobs.

August 2 – Sanlu Fonterra officials informed the board about the melamine problem.

September – The New Zealand government, after discussions with Fonterra executives, contacted authorities in Beijing.  Beijing officials say they knew nothing about the scandal until September, though a Fonterra company spokesman said the company believed the central government knew in August.

September 9 – Recall announced.

Chinese Premier Wen Jerboa (did not meet him while I was there, but I did tour the “Hall of the People.”) yesterday reassured the world that China was serious about bettering its food safety record:

"We plan not only to revitalize the food industry and the milk powder industry, we will try to ensure that all China-made products are safe for consumers and consumers can buy with assurance."

Empty words? Likely. Here are the real problem and until there are changes, “Made in China,” still will mean, “Buyer Beware."

  • The Chinese Central Propaganda Department had been issuing broad reporting guidelines that were distributed in Internal Digest, a classified bimonthly Communist Party bulletin.  The emphasis was on promoting good news about the Olympics.  Propaganda officials responded by issuing rules that required domestic publications to obtain permission before publishing any articles about food safety and other politically delicate subjects.
  • On Friday, 20 lawyers in 15 provinces received threatening visits or calls from their local legal affairs bureaus warning them not to join a group to help the victims of tainted milk. They were told they could lose their licenses if they did not withdraw from the effort. As one lawyer said:  "Our goal is not to help the victims sue the dairy companies. We just want to help them with advice," the lawyer said, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. "We believe the government will eventually have a solution, so it’s important to preserve the evidence. We don’t understand why we are being stopped."

A free press and the right to legal advice is a must to keep corporations like Sanlu Fonterra and the Chinese Government honest.  Frankly, that is true whatever country you are in.  The world’s media and legal associations, especially in the US, need to speak out in support of our chinese collegues.  Until there is a free press and a functioning legal system in China, expect to see more outbreaks, illnesses and cover-ups.

For a bit more information on the Chinese legal system (or lack thereof) see "What China’s Tainted Milk May Not Bring – Lawsuits" and a very good early analysis in "China Says 432 Infants Have Kidney Stones From Sanlu Formula" of why the outbreak happened in the first place.