A scandal over tainted infant formula has swept across China, where three babies have died and at least 6,244 others have fallen sick after consuming milk formula produced by 22 different companies. The scare has once again cast the spotlight on food safety in a country that had pledged to clean up its food industry. Katy Humphries reports.

Three babies are dead and at least 6,244 infants have fallen ill after being fed infant formula manufactured by 22 different Chinese dairy companies.

The safety scandal began late last week when it emerged that baby formula produced by the Sanlu Group Co. was contaminated with melamine, the same chemical found last year in pet-food exports that killed or sickened thousands of North American dogs and cats.

According to Chinese health authorities, up to 10,000 infants may have consumed tainted milk manufactured by Sanlu. However, with the news today (17 september) that a further 21 companies were selling contaminated products, including Beijing Olympics sponsor Yili and leading dairy Mengniu, this figure is likely to be considerably greater.

Melamine, a chemical used to manufacture plastics and fertilisers, has been illegally used by some Chinese businesses to artificially boost protein readings in animal feed and food products. 

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According to the state-run Xinhua news agency, Chinese police have arrested two brothers in Shijiazhuang, Hebei, the same city that where Sanlu’s headquarters is located.

The brothers, reportedly surnamed Geng, ran a private operation collecting milk from farmers for resale. They allegedly began putting melamine in their milk late last year, after Sanlu rejected it because it failed to meet quality requirements. They have been accused of selling three tonnes of contaminated milk a day to Sanlu.

Citing a police spokesman, Xinhua reported that the brothers could face charges of “producing and selling toxic and hazardous food”.

The brothers were reportedly among 19 people detained by the Chinese authorities in connection with the incident.

Since the contamination came to light, officials have seized or recalled more than 10,000 tonnes of Sanlu formula and, following a nationwide inspection of fresh milk and cattle feed, a further recall of the contaminated milk from 21 more firms has been launched.

The crisis has raised serious questions about China’s food safety regime even after last year’s legislative reforms enacted in the wake of the tainted pet food, toothpaste and drugs scandals.

Sanlu first received complaints from consumers in March and an internal investigation was conducted and some products were recalled. However, at this time the company did not report the complaints to the authorities or reveal concerns to the public and tainted milk formula remained on the shelves.

Sanlu’s board and New Zealand dairy giant Fonterra, which owns 43% of the company, learnt of the issue on 2 August.

Fonterra said it called for a full recall of the product as soon as it heard of the contamination. “We have continued to push for this all along. Consumer safety has always been our number one priority,” the company said in a statement.

Fonterra’s CEO Andrew Ferrier said in a press briefing webcast from China that the Sanlu board, which includes three Fonterra representatives, informed state authorities and ordered a trade recall of the infant formula on 2 August.

However, Fonterra’s call for a full consumer recall went unanswered by local authorities and the milk powder remained on sale.

According to a report in the New Zealand Herald, Ferrier has indicated that he was frustrated with how the Chinese authorities handled the situation.

“This is a very big issue … and we would have been much happier if this thing had been in the public domain sooner,” he said.

However, Ferrier asserted that it would have been irresponsible of Fonterra to have gone public with the information.

“What we had to do was ensure Sanlu worked with Chinese authorities within normal guidelines of Chinese practices to begin the recall and that’s what happened,” he reportedly said.

Indeed, New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark confirmed that Chinese local officials had blocked a full recall.

“I’m confident Fonterra wanted the product recalled from the beginning but could not get the local authorities in China to do that,” she said.

On 5 September, Fonterra told the New Zealand government about the issue and three days later Clark told NZ officials to bypass the local authorities and directly inform the central government in Beijing.

“Eventually, Fonterra quite properly came to the NZ Government. When it came to me and other ministers we said to officials: ‘Do not hold back a moment later, you must go in at the highest level you can in Beijing’.”

According to Clark, the central government was quick to act after the concerns had been raised.

“As you can imagine, when the New Zealand government blew the whistle in Beijing, a very heavy hand then descended on the local authorities,” she told Radio New Zealand.

While the central government has now swung into action, the delay in halting sales and the apparent breath of the issue – the root cause of which is yet to be determined – has added to the anger and mistrust among Chinese consumers and raised concerns over the safety of Chinese food products internationally.

Food scandals have proliferated in China in recent years and this latest episode brings back memories of the 2004 baby formula scare when formula missing key ingredients left 13 children dead and hundreds of infants ill. 

The Chinese government has been quick to downplay these concerns.

A spokesperson for China’s Health Ministry told just-food yesterday that Sanlu has been ordered to cease production and emphasised that very little milk powder has been exported.

“Only a small amount of the milk powder was sold in Taiwan for food processing,” the spokesperson said. “We are taking action to contain the problem and prevent similar incidents in the future.”

However, it emerged today that Yili and Mengniu had exported milk powder to five countries in Asia and Africa, according to China’s quality watchdog AQSIQ.

The incident is obviously a serious setback for China’s efforts to restore domestic and international confidence in its food-safety system and indeed places a question mark over the safety of Chinese dairy products.

The impact that this will have on Chinese food exports remains to be seen and this is a concern for the Chinese food industry, a spokesperson for the China National Food Industry Association told just-food.

“The incident does show that we will have to work hard to regain consumer confidence at home and abroad. We must demonstrate the safety of Chinese food products to the world,” the spokesperson said.

With consumer confidence severely dented by numerous and highly publicised food-related scandals, and concerns still surrounding both Chinese food safety legislation and its implementation, this looks set to be an uphill struggle.