On December 31, 2009, the Chinese government-run Xinhua news agency announced that melamine was found in milk produced by the Shanghai Panda company. Initial reports indicated that the Shanghai Panda plant was shut down, three of the company’s top executives were arrested, and milk produced by the company was recalled from seven provinces. (See Shanghai Shuts Down Dairy for Melamine, Jan. 4)
Sadly, this recent scare is only one in a long line of contaminated milk controversies in China. In 2008, over 294,000 infants were sickened or killed after consuming tainted powdered milk. (For an in depth look at the 2008 melamine scare, you can read my earlier report here) The 2008 outbreak was prompted by companies that deliberately poisoned their product in order to generate falsely inflated protein content results. The only reason such protein tests were required in the first place was because of earlier problems with companies that were diluting their product, thus lessening production costs. Oh yeah, the diluted product happened to cause the small side effect of malnutrition, leading to the deaths of children who consumed the milk. Apparently such side effects are no big deal in the world of Chinese business.
So what thread binds all of the previous Chinese milk scares together? The answer is simple: corporate greed. Reports are still inconclusive as to whether the latest melamine scandal was motivated by a company looking to make a profit at any cost, however, as reported by the Wall Street Journal, it appears likely that the latest disaster was masked for the better part of a year by a large-scale industry cover-up.
On Tuesday, a Chinese newspaper reported that milk industry representatives may have known about the Shanghai Panda melamine contamination as early as April 2009. It even appears, according to one insider, that the Chinese government had looked into the production practices at Shanghai Panda as early as September 2009. This, unfortunately, parallels the string of delays and cover-ups associated with the 2008 contamination scandal, which at the time led to tens of thousands of additional illnesses.
Despite the breaking international news surrounding this latest melamine scandal, the Chinese government has been slow to respond to questions. It is unknown, as of yet, whether any Chinese citizens were injured by consuming the tainted milk.
After over a year of following these scandals, it’s tough not to be cynical about the state of Chinese business regulations. After all, melamine contamination was said to be a thing of the past after the government enacted new food safety laws on June 1, 2009. Two men were even executed for their roles in the 2008 scandal. Still, at the end of the day, it seems that greed rules the game in Chinese business. Apparently, no amount of scare tactics or unenforced legislation is going stop these companies from taking advantage of a system that allows them to function with essentially no oversight. Sadly, the cost of Chinese corporate greed is being borne by the children who consume these products. For Chinese milk companies, dead and injured children are just another expense of doing business.