Whether it was Great Leap Forward turning out to be a reversal or the Cultural Revolution ending up in chaos, it was years before China’s top political bodies felt secure enough to talk about any lessons learned from those experiences.
But that was when the People’s Republic of China was all red, not like now when Beijing paints mostly in the color of money. Increasingly, China has to pay attention to events more quickly especially its own consumer trends.
That’s why the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), which acts as sort of an upper advisory legislative body, is hearing now about the lessons of the 2008 melamine scandal.
At that time when at least 300,000 babies consumed infant milk contaminated with melamine and at least six infants died, Chinese consumers voted at their grocery stores by switching almost en masse to imported baby formula.
Liu Peizhi, the State Council Food Safety Commission’s vice director, said Chinese purchases of foreign baby formula grew massively in 2009 to almost 600,000 tons, up from 120,600 tons in 2008.
In shopping trips known in China as “milk sweeping” tours, parents flocked to Hong Kong, Macao, and foreign countries to buy up all the foreign baby formula they could find, often leaving empty shelves behind.
In his remarks to the CPPCC, Liu said China has 448,000 licensed food producers and 80 percent are small businesses employing 10 or fewer workers. Over 200 million farmers in China raise animals and crops.
Liu said food manufacturing in China needs more standardization and supervision.
The chemical melamine, typically used in plastics, was added to infant formula by dairies in China to make the protein level seem higher.
China’s official reaction to the 2008 scandal was a mixed. Milk dealers and melamine suppliers involved faced criminal charges and two, Zhang Yujun and Geng Jinping, were executed in November 2009.
But in the same month, China jailed Zhao Lianhai, a Beijing father of one of the infant victims, for organizing parents who wanted more information about the contamination and guarantees of medical care for the injured. In November 2010, Zhao was convicted and sentenced to serve another 30 months in jail, where he remains.
In taking the action, the communist government was imprisoning “a man the Chinese public rightly view as a protector of children, not a criminal,” Amnesty International said.
Most Chinese have doubts about their food supply, according to the annual Consumer Food Security Confidence Report published by the Media Survey Lab at Tsinghua University and state-owed China Insight Magazine.
That survey found 70 percent of the Chinese do not believe their food is safe, over 50 percent want food safety strengthened, and 53 percent are very concerned about food quality. The top reason for not trusting statements about food quality is that Chinese consumers do not believe food producers have any morals.
Food safety is now included in China’s 11th five-year plan for 2011-2015. Meanwhile, the China Ministry of Agriculture announced that, in addition to the chemical tests for melamine, fresh dairy products will now be checked for leather-hydrolyzed protein.
The potentially poisonous additive, containing the toxic chemicals potassium dichromate and sodium dichromate, is used to soften leather. China has recently found it in milk.