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In 2008, fresh milk and milk formula tainted with melamine was blamed for the deaths of six infants and sickening 294,000 children, with 51,900 requiring hospitalization and 10,700 requiring hospitalization for several week. Many children were hospitalized with kidney stones, acute kidney failure and other kidney-related problems. Rare in infants, kidney stones are small, solid masses that form when salts or minerals normally found in urine crystalize inside the kidney. Some babies were brought to the hospital after vomiting and being unable to urinate. The deaths were caused by kidney failure that occurred after drinking contaminated milk.

Many think the death figure was under-counted. AP described one family whose 9-month-old daughter mysteriously died and was buried before the news of tainted milk broke. She had consumed large amounts of tainted Sanlu formula. At least three other similar cases like this have been uncovered. It is not clear whether the did in fact die from tainted milk or some other cause but there was no mechanism in place to check.

Melamine is a chemical composed of nitrogen, carbon and hydrogen that can be mixed with formadehyde to make plastic. Normally used in the plastics and fertilizer industries. It is high in nitrogen, which means it gives a high protein reading when added food. Melamine is the same chemical that was involved in the pet food scare.

Children under one fed contaminated milk since birth developed kidney stones. They suffered the most because formula and mother’s milk were about the only thing they consumed. Hospitals were besieged by parents whose children had consumed milk or powered milk whether it was contaminated or not. The deaths occurred between May and August before the public was aware that the milk was tainted.

If melamine is concentrated it forms crystals. When the crystals suddenly form into large clusters or balls in the kidneys of children they can cause chronic kidney failure, requiring dialysis and even a kidney transplant later in life, or permanent liver damage.

More than 80 percent of those hospitalized were 2 years old and younger. Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “At the Capital Institute of Pediatrics in Beijing on Tuesday, a long line of parents waited for their infants to have blood tests and ultrasound exams at government expense. Impromptu nurses stations were set up in the hallway to help with the crowd. [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, September 23, 2008]

Tang Zhongjun, father of 18-month-old Fukun, told the Los Angeles Times his family used Sanlu milk products since their son's birth because of their excellent reputation. Several of the companies involved had been considered so safe that they were not subject to inspections. Later Fukun started throwing up, suffering from diarrhea and having trouble urinating. His parents took him to four hospitals and eventually discovered that he had three large kidney stones. “His mother has cried a lot and lost weight,” Tang said. “He still suffers from malnutrition and keeps falling.” [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, September 23, 2008]

Websites and Sources: China Food Safety.com chinafoodsafety.com ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; China Digital Times list of articles chinadigitaltimes.net ;

Tainted Milk and Chinese Dairy Companies

Products from 22 Chinese dairy companies were found to be tainted. A survey of milk producers, found that 20 percent of the dairy companies checked out, including Mengnui Dairy, China’s largest milk company, had sold products with melamine. Most of the victims consumed infant formula produced by Shijiazhuang Sanlu Group. Inner Mongolia Yili Industrial Group and Bright Dairy groups were also major producers of contaminated milk.

Dairy companies blamed unscrupulous subcontractors and suppliers. Milk collection stations and individual farmers were accused of watering down milk to increase volume and adding melamine to increase protein levels. According to an investigation much of the melamine used was produced at underground plants and sold to breeding farms and purchasing stations. Much of it was added by middlemen who collected milk from farmers and watered it down and sold it to large dairy companies.

Sanlu in particular was singled out as a bad guy because it first received reports that its baby formula was making children ill in December 2007, eight months before the milk scandal broke. In June 2008, the company informed the Chinese government that there were problems at the company. In early August, Frontea, a New Zealand dairy company that owns a large chunk of Sanlu, became aware that melamine had been found in Sanlu milk products and urged a recall, but it wasn’t until New Zealand officials told Chinese officials about the problem that Sanlu finally issued a recall, in mid September, as the tainted milk scandal was being revealed.

Tainted Milk in Foreign Countries

Melamine-tainted products appeared all over the globe: in Chinese-produced yoghurt sold in Bari and Naples, Italy; in ice cream bars sold in Hong Kong; in powdered milk, candy, blueberry cream cookies, and chocolate sold the Philippines; in wasabi snacks and pumpkin buns sold in Japan; in toffees and milk powder sold in Europe; in five different kinds of liquid milk sold in Vietnam; in Koala brand cookies sold in the Netherlands; and in White Rabbit brand candy sold in Singapore. Traces of melamine were found in samples of the top-selling U.S. infant formula.. The levels were deemed extremely low and FDA officials said they presented no health risk.

Famous international brand got dragged down by the scandal. Cadbury order a recall of 11 chocolate products produced at its is factory in Beijing, which makes products sold in China, Taiwan. Hong Kong and Australia. Kraft and Mars investigated claims that Oreos, M&Ms and Snickers imported from China had high melamine levels. Nestle took some heat over its Chinese-made milk products, including milk powder sold in Hong Kong. Heinz checked out baby cereal sold in Hong Kong. Unilever checked Lipton milk tea powder distributed in Hong Kong and Macao. Pizza Hut threw out cheese packets used in Taiwan. And Nabisco recalled Ritz cracker cheese sandwiches sold in South Korea.

The tainted milk crisis cost China billions of dollars, affected the livelihoods of millions of people and shattered consumer confidence. The crisis was blamed on a lack of regulations, corruption, failure to enforce regulations that were in place and the shady practices among Chinese milk producers. Regulations contained many loopholes that allowed milk suppliers to avoid safety checks.

Chinese Government and the Tainted Milk Scandal

Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Particularly disconcerting for many is evidence that so many producers were involved while regulators stood by, that warnings were ignored, and that knowledge of the tampering appeared to be widespread... Particularly damning are suggestions that local officials and top executives were warned about the problem in March, or even earlier. But with little pressure from voters, shareholders, an independent news media or consumer advocates, those involved apparently felt little need to address it.”

The Chinese government initially said four infants died and 53,000 were sickened but raised the figure in late 2008. Well-known TV host Liu Yiwei, in a column in a Shanghai newspaper, asked why regulators don't oversee food production as carefully as they oversee the media. Films “don't injure people or take their lives,” he wrote. “Why can't officials inspect baby formula as strictly as they censor films?”

Liu Donglin, 28, who says his 21-month old son suffered from kidney stones after drinking tainted milk powder, told the New York Times, “I spent nearly $3,000 taking care of my son and the government only compensated me with $300.

David Barboza wrote in New York Times, ‘some lawyers and victims of the scandal have accused Beijing of failing to properly regulate the nation’s dairy industry and some believe the government covered up the scandal before the Beijing Olympics last August, disclosing the news in September. Former Sanlu officials acknowledged in testimony last month that they knew there were complaints and serious problems with their dairy products as early as May of last year.” [Source:David Barboza, New York Times, January 22, 2009]

“But the government has placed the blame on a group of unscrupulous dairy company executives, farmers and middlemen who prosecutors say intentionally sold goods spiked with melamine to save money and increase profits. Melamine, which is used to produce plastics and fertilizer, was often added as a cheap filler or replacement for protein powder.

Response to Tainted Milk in China

For a time the Chinese government insisted that the milk was accidently contaminated then finally admitted something terrible had taken place. Chinese President Hu Jintao was quoted in the People’s Daily as saying: “there have been some serious work and food safety accidents this year in certain places that have caused major harm to life and the well-being of the masses...These incidents show that some officials have lost their sense of principals, of the public interest, of responsibilities, of attention to people’s suffering.”

Dozens of people were arrested, many in connection with an investigation of the Sanlu group, which was at the center of scandal. Among those arrested were milk dealers suspected of selling tainted milk, middlemen that added melamine to watered down milk they sold to dairy companies, and others suspected of selling melamine. The head of China’s food safety watchdog was forced to resign for failing to stop the milk contamination.

China ordered all milk products more than a month old to be pulled from shop shelves nationwide and issued new regulations to tighten quality controls of the dairy industry that covered the breeding of cows, purchasing of raw milk and the sale and purchase of dairy products. From that time onward milk collection stations would need approval from local authorities to operate and violators would be blacklisted and publically named. More than 32,200 tons of tainted products were burned in cement and steel factories to show consumers that the government was doing all it could to address the scandal. Chinese television showed boxes filled milk powder and formula going up in flames.

In December 2008, China announced it would publish a blacklist of additives that make products taste better or appear nutritious but are harmful to health and launch a four-month food safety campaign that included inspections of food makers and close down ones found using illegal or excessive amounts of chemicals in food. Beijing launched a similar campaign in the run up to the Olympics. Ab official quoted by Xinhua said, “The crisis has put China’s dairy industry in peril and exposes major problems existing in the quality control and supervision of the industry.”

Later it was revealed that details of the tainted milk scandal were known at least a month before the Olympics began but reporters who known about them were muzzled by government officials so as not to taint the Olympics. Tens of thousands of children would not have been sickened if people were informed earlier about the tainted milk.

By June 2009, all of China’s 20,393 milk collection stations had been checked and 3,908 of them were closed down because they lacked testing equipment or were not sanitary.

In January 2009, the Chinese government announced plans to impose production controls on melamine, with the aim reducing its production to prevent it from being used as a food additive.

Tainted Milk Websites in China

Ariana Eunjung Cha wrote in the Washington Post, “When Zhao Lianhai created a Web site for parents of children hurt or killed by contaminated milk, he did not set out to challenge the Communist Party. He did it because his son was sick. The 3-year-old had been diagnosed with kidney stones and Zhao was scared. He needed advice.”[Source: Ariana Eunjung Cha, Washington Post, March 28, 2009]

Within days, more than 4,000 families signed up, and soon the discussion evolved from technical questions and answers about medical care to demands for punishment and compensation. It wasn't long before the 37-year-old former advertising salesman became the de facto spokesman, organizer and lobbyist for thousands of parents across the country whose children had suffered after drinking infant formula or milk that had been illegally doctored with the industrial chemical melamine.”

“In a country where every leader must be appointed, approved or otherwise sanctioned by the party, the fact that Zhao has been allowed to operate relatively freely is a testament to the government's careful approach to those he represents. It is perhaps out of respect for their concerns — or fear of them.”

Parents groups such as Zhao's — whose members' children were hurt or killed in various tragedies such as the milk scandal, the Sichuan earthquake and the Tiananmen Square massacre — have become an emerging political force. They pose a special challenge to the Chinese government, which has not been able to deal with the grieving parents in the same manner it has dealt with others who challenge its authority.”

The parents, hugging pictures of their sick or deceased children, have captured the public's empathy. Attempts to bully, bribe, harass or detain them have been met with harsh reprimands from ordinary citizens on Internet bulletin boards. So the government has chosen, for the most part, to let the parents be — a significant concession for a government that has always been deeply suspicious of any group that it does not directly control.”

When Zhao set up his Web site...the government moved quickly, shutting down the site repeatedly. The more authorities began to crack down on his group, however, the more the group fought back. It called itself the Melamine Victims' Parents Alliance. Zhao, the son of a government prison official, said he had become disillusioned with how the problem was being handled.He blames China's culture rather than a specific government entity, company or individual for the scandal. “In today's Chinese society, too much attention has shifted to material pursuits while social fairness and justice are scarce,” he said. “If this situation continues, tragedies like the [milk powder scandal] will happen over and over again.”

Court Cases Involving Tainted Milk Victims

The family of a six-month-old baby that died from the tainted milked filed a suit against Shijiazhunag Sanlu Group, asking for $160,000 in damages. Several other suits for children that were sickened were also filed.

In November 2008, lawyers for dozens of families with children sickened by tainted milk announced they would file a class-action law suit against Shijiazhunag Sanlu Group, in attempt to get officials to get on the ball rolling in awarding compensation. The lawsuit sought money for medical and other expenses, payments for trauma and compensation for families of those who died.

In March 2009, a Chinese court began accepting lawsuits from families of children sickened by tainted milk. The first involved a case involved the parents of an 11-month-old Beijing child who was sickened by tainted baby formula produced by Sanlu and sought $4,500 in damages, one of smallest amounts among lawsuits filed against Sanlu.

In November 2010, the first civil lawsuit in China’s milk scandal was heard at a court in Beijing . The suit against the Sanlu group dairy company was brought on Ma Xuexin, a man from central Henan Province whose 20-month-old child was sickened and got kidney stones by tainted milk.

Milk Activist to Be Released

In December 2010, of jailed melamine milk activist Zhao Lianhai , was released on medical parole. On his blog Zhao said he was hospitalized and was sorry for making a fuss. “I support and thank the government and I feel deeply sorry for the remarks I made against the government in the past.” His lawyer said Zhao was probably allowed to go free if he promised to keep silent on the food safety scandal. [Source: Priscilla Jiao and Tanna Chong South China Morning Post, November 24, 2010]

It is unprecedented for Beijing to release a mainland convict so soon after conviction. Medical parole is supposed to only be applicable to convicts who have served a third of their term. Since Zhao has been detained for a year, he could be released at any time.

Beijing's Daxing District People's Court sentenced to 2½ years in prison for "provoking quarrels and making trouble" by campaigning for the rights of victims of the melamine scandal, which made 300,000 children ill two years ago. Upon hearing the sentence, Zhao was so furious he took off his prison uniform and slammed it on the judge's desk.

Li said he believed Zhao accepted the deal under immense pressure, but he would respect Zhao's decision. "It's a shame that the verdict cannot be changed through filing an appeal," he said. Zhao's freedom is likely to be restricted after his release and he could easily go back to jail if he refuses to co-operate with the government, Li said. Zhao's wife, Li Xuemei , was under house arrest and denied permission to meet anyone. Xiang Qingyu , whose four-year-old son suffers kidney problems after drinking melamine-laced milk powder, respected Zhao's decision but said the campaign for victims' compensation would be hampered.

Compensation for Tainted Milk Victims

In December 2008, the 300,000 or so Chinese families with children sickened by toxic milk were offered a state-backed $160 million compensation deal paid by 22 Chinese dairy companies linked to the tainted milk scandal. In the compensation package, parents of children who died received a one-time payment of 200,000 yuan ($29,000), and those of children with kidney stones or who became seriously ill received 30,000 yuan. Victims of less serious cases were awarded 2,000 yuan.

As of January 2009, 90 percent of the 300,000 or so Chinese families with children stricken by toxic accepted compensation Those that accepted included the parents of the six that died and all but two of the 891 that became seriously ill. Those who didn’t accept said the payments were too low. Some parents were briefly detained by police, apparently to prevent them from talking to journalists.

Death Sentences in Chinese Milk Scandal

In December 2008, 19 people went on trial in connection with the tainted milk scandal, with four charged with endangering public safety by producing and selling melamine, a crime with sentences ranging from 10 years to death. Among them were Sanlu’s female CEO and general manager Tian Wenhua and three other executives, one of whom was brought in on a wheelchair because he had lost the use of his legs in a suicide attempt. The others included melamine producers, middlemen who sold tainted milk and milk collectors that mixed in melamine with supples to major dairies.

The court said members of the group had intentionally produced and sold fake or substandard dairy products laced with melamine. The harshest sentences were given to Zhang Yujun, a dairy middleman who the government called one of the principal criminals in the scandal. He was sentenced to death after being convicted of selling 600 tons of melamine-tainted protein powder to dairy companies. Another dairy producer, Geng Jinpin, was also sentenced to death. A third man received the death penalty with a two-year reprieve, which means he could be spared execution. [Source:David Barboza, New York Times, January 22, 2009]

Tian Wenhua, was sentenced to life in prison for her failure to stop producing and selling the tainted goods even after her company learned that the products were flawed. She was the highest-ranking corporate executive brought to trial last year. She pleaded guilty to the charge of failing to act properly in the case. She was also fined about $3 million. On hearing of Tian Wehhua’s sentence, the grandmother of one victim said “My granddaughter died. She should die too.”

a court in Shijiazhuang fined the Sanlu $7.3 million for its role in the scandal. In February 2009 Sanlu formally declared bankruptcy, reporting $161 million in debts. Before the tainted milk scandal Sanlu was one of China’s largest dairy firms.

Response to Tainted Milk in Foreign Countries

Many countries — including Indonesia, Japan, Columbia, Gabon, Kenya, Malaysia and Kenya — banned Chinese dairy products. Countries like the United States, France and Vietnam stepped up their investigations of Chinese-made dairy products. The United Nations called on China to reform its food safety system.

In November 2008, U.S. Food and Drug Administration ordered imported food from China — mostly ethnic treats, snacks, drinks and chocolates in which milk is an ingredient — held at the border for possible health risks and opened its first offices outside the United States — in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou — as part of new global strategy to ensure the safety of food.

Only 1,036 tons of dairy products was exported from China in October 2008, down 92 percent from the same period the year before. Exports of other Chinese food products also declined.

More Tainted Milk Problems

In early 2010, batches of melamine-spiked milk began seeping into the market again. Some of the contaminated milk is believed to have been designated to be destroyed but was instead hidden away and secretly resold later. In February the Chinese government said all the tainted milk had been recalled.

A survey released in July 2010, found melamine-tainted dairy products in at least three provinces, including in 64 tons of raw materials for making milk powder and in 12 tons of finished powder in the far western province of Qinghai.

In the summer of 2010 there were reports of contaminated milk products causing baby girls to develop breasts and show other signs of premature sexual development, with three cases reported in the city of Wuhan among girls age four to six months and six cases in other areas. Milk powder produced by the Nasdaq-listed Synutra company was blamed. China’s Health Ministry conducted an investigation and said it found no evidence of contamination or high levels of estrogen or hormones. [Source: Reuters]

In April 2011, three children under two died and 36 others were hospitalized after consuming milk laced with nitrates-chemicals usually used to cure meats. Police determined the milk had been intentionally poisoned and arrested suspects, the Chinese state media reported.

In April 2011, nearly half of all the dairies in China had their licenses revoked after failing quality inspections. According to China’s quality inspection agency 533 of the country’s 1,176 dairies were ordered to cease operations and only of 107 of those closed would be allowed to apply for new licences after improved quality controls. An investigation showed that a local dairy farmer had put the poison into their competitor's milk supply.

China Milk Powder Demand Leaves Hong Kong Shelves Bare

James Pomfret wrote in Reuters Life!, “China food safety concerns and a strong currency are prompting a flood of Chinese parents to sweep supplies of milk powder from Hong Kong shop shelves, triggering citywide shortages and angering parents. Two years after the melamine-tainted milk powder scandal hit mainland China and made nearly 300,000 children sick, problems have continued to undermine Chinese public confidence including the seizure of over 100 tonnes of tainted milk powder last year.” [Source: James Pomfret, Reuters Life!, February 1, 2011]

Such entrenched product safety concerns have fuelled rapid growth in whole milk powder imports to China, which nearly doubled to an estimated 340,000 tonnes in 2010, making China the world's largest market for such infant formula. A lucrative and booming parallel market has emerged in southern China, with Hong Kong's high quality and regulated infant formula brands proving popular with Chinese parents streaming across the border to sweep up stocks, leaving shelves bare for popular brands.

"As a parent, of course we hope our children are healthy so a little inconvenience is worthwhile," said Chinese mother Wang Lan, who was buying six tins of Holland-made Frisco milk powder in the Hong Kong border town of Sheung Shui that has become a hot spot. "Those who are able to come will often come across to buy now," Wang added.

Grey market traders have also piled into the trade, employing mules who are regularly seen on the streets of Sheung Shui, shuttling boxes of formula up north by train on trolleys where they're sold for a large mark-up profit. The rise in China's currency, the yuan, against the U.S.-dollar-pegged Hong Kong dollar, has also made the city's products relatively cheap. "Even if we get one hundred boxes (of milk powder), I'm honestly telling you, within two or three days I can sell everything," said Alan Kwok, who runs a small dispensary in Sheung Shui.

"There are a lot more people snatching milk powder from Hong Kong," Kwok added, saying sales had surged 40 percent this year. The shortages have sparked a tide of complaints from Hong Kong parents, who've had to scour stores for increasingly scarce tins in recent weeks, forcing some, in extreme cases, to feed their babies bread or noodles instead. Several hundred parents recently launched an online petition calling for explicit curbs including the implementation of a milk powder tax for those taking Hong Kong milk powder into China.

Some major brands, like Mead Johnson Nutrition , have now pledged emergency measures. Elaine Chow, an employee with the firm in Hong Kong, said it was setting up an ordering hotline for parents and would release an extra 420,000 tins of formula in the next two weeks to meet demand. "They (the milk powder brands) should have adequate experience to handle this emergency situation," Connie Lau, the head of Hong Kong's Consumer Council, told Reuters.

Image Sources: YouTube, Wikipedia

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2011

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