Reuters reported yesterday that a Chinese court sentenced two men to death for their role in the production and sale of melamine-tainted milk that killed at least six children and made nearly 300,000 ill.   The former head of the dairy firm at the heart of the scandal, the now bankrupt Sanlu Group, got life in prison and a fine.  I was stunned, but not surprised at the anger directed at the executive of Sanlu:

"I think she should be shot. A death for a death," said Zheng Shuzhen, a 48-year-old grandmother from central Henan province, who said her one-year-old granddaughter, Zhou Mengxian, died in June of kidney failure after drinking Sanlu milk formula but was not included in the list of victims.

Six died in China last year over melamine-tainted milk and six have died in the last months in the United States over Salmonells-tainted peanut butter.  Five died in 2006 due to E. coli-tainted spinach and 5,000 die each year in the United States due too food poisoning.  The CDC also estimates that another 325,000 are hospitalized and 76 Million are sickened each year in the United States by food.  Does anyone recall a criminal prosecution?  One must wonder what United States food company executives are thinking?  Perhaps pleased that their parents did not choose to live in China?

Interestingly, AP reported just a few days ago, "China families take milk case to highest court." More than 200 families whose babies fell ill after drinking tainted infant formula are taking their case to China’s highest court after being repeatedly ignored by lower courts.  One wonders, if Chinese citizens had the same rights that we take for granted, that death sentences would be fewer and farther between.  Here is a quote from on of the plaintiffs:

"The reason why I’m bringing this case to court is not about money but about my child’s future," said Zhang Ge, a single mother in Beijing who quit her job at an Internet advertising company to look after her sick son.

  • From a good friend who does not want to be named:
    Bill, I like you and what you do, but….
    1. Big difference between intentionally lacing milk and wheat gluten with melamine for profit motives and contaminating carcasses during the hide pull by unskilled labor.
    2. There have been prosecutions, just not death sentences. Hallmark is maybe the latest where someone went to jail.
    3. But most irritating to me are those darned statistics EVERYONE uses of 73 million illnesses from FBI, 350,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths. If you look carefully, you will find that Robert Tauxe et al published t here report in 1999 and called it “Preliminary”. The preliminary has not been removed that I am aware of. Should not the numbers be updated at least every five years or so?
    And the CDC reported in their 2000 MMWR report the same statistics, but also stated that not all of the “food borne illnesses” were cause be ingesting food. They listed water, person to person, animal exposure, etc. Seems strange to publish an article titled “preliminary” report on food borne illnesses for 1999 and almost immediately state that they are not all food borne.
    CDC also reports that 57% of food borne illnesses are from the Norwalk virus. Hardly something industry can be blamed for. And then there are other viruses, natural occurring ingredients etc that the slaughter plants are also not responsible for, but they count in the CDC stats.
    And lastly is the fact that since not all FBIs get reported, the CDC arbitrarily decided to multiply the number of some illnesses by 40 to get a more “accurate” indication of illness, while they only doubled others.
    Oh, and their numbers are based on data from ten states/metro areas, not reflective of the US population and with hugely varying incidents of FBIs based on reporting, testing, economics, etc.

  • C. R. Winston

    The worst thing about this particular case is how the Chinese government is approaching regulatory response. Instead of acknowledging the government’s role in cultivating a wild west economic development policy to the detriment of the natural environment and the health of chinese citizens, they instead seemingly intend to scare development crazed businesses straight by executing CEO’s. This would seem to be a step backwards in terms of creating a business environment that rewards safe product records. The commercial motive behind the whole thing gets much more prominent coverage overseas than here in the US (i.e. see SkyNews’s explanation of what that Melamine stuff is used for versus CNN’s piece that focuses on the parent out for blood at corporate headquarters and I suspect that may be because of corporate queasy-ness over a story about how unregulated economic growth sometimes has a big price tag.

  • Bix

    “Overall, we estimated that there were 38.6 cases of Salmonella for each culture‚Äêconfirmed case.”
    “FoodNet Estimate of the Burden of Illness Caused by Nontyphoidal Salmonella Infections in the United States”
    Clinical Infectious Diseases, April 2004

  • Homer

    We don’t really know how many in China were killed or sicked by melamine tainted milk.
    We only know what was reported by the govenment.
    A friend from Taiwan says that if one death was reported, you can be sure that there were a thousand deaths.

  • Chester

    I am not normally a fan of Chinese government’s policies, but if food companies here can face the death penalty for tainting their products (as with the current case of peanut butter), I doubt they would be so casual about neglecting food safety.