Friday, September 19, 2008

Get this right: Melamine and baby formula don't mix

In recent days, there have been big bad news about tainted milk powder in China flying around the media. During the last week at least, Chinese parents have been massively rushing their babies into hospitals, as some of them were suffering of serious kidney failures, and some others simply wanted to make sure that their children were healthy. The reason? Some dishonest milk producers who, in order to produce cheaper milk to boost their profits, 'enriched' their products with melamine. Then, the tainted milk was sold to milk powder manufacturers, who utilized it as raw material for consumption products like, for instance, baby formulas, which were later distributed to final consumers through their various distribution channels. Initially, it was thought that a single manufacturer, Sanlu, was responsible for stocking in shelved tainted formula, but after the quality other formula brands in the Chinese market were tested, it was discovered that at least 20 different brands had been selling formulas with melamine.

To have an idea about how bad this is, let's just mention that melamine is a chemical material utilized in the production of glues, floor tiles and flame resistant materials, among others. Of course, melamine is not a compound intended for human or animal consumption, but given its low cost, availability, and (relatively) low toxicity, it has been unethically utilized with the intention of increasing the apparent protein content in foodstuffs.

There is an interesting question to ask here: How could anyone dare to willingly poison food that will be later sold to innocent consumers, just for the sake of increasing their profits? Letting aside the financial side of their rationale, wouldn't that go against the very basic ethics of any rational human being? Moreover, as if those questions were not challenging enough, here comes another one that puzzles me even more: Given the fact that, back in 2007, there was in North America a massive recall of pet foods made with Chinese ingredients tainted with melamine, how come the Chinese authorities just turned a blind eye on the issue instead of increasing the quality inspections of all foodstuffs produced in their country? Fonterra, a New Zealand-based cooperative that owns 43% of Sanlu's shares, has an answer for that: They know "of no dairy company in the world that tests for a chemical such as melamine that would have to be deliberately mixed in milk". Too bad that not even that record of tainted pet food didn't prompt food producers or even the government to test for that. Who is responsible for the ultimate quality of the food products then?

If you thought that not ensuring the quality of baby food sold in Chinese supermarkets was a condemnable attitude from the authorities, here goes some even more shocking news: According to news reports, there is evidence that the Chinese authorities learned about the melamine case in early August, but kept it in the dark to avoid a public shame during the Olympic games. In the meantime, people kept buying baby formulas, and an increasing number of infants got sick on a daily basis. Was it really worth it to keep such information as a secret? Those poor sick children's parents probably have an answer for that.

This is just as disgusting as it can get. A few people who have confessed to deliberately taint milk with melamine have been already arrested in China, but that will hardly repair the damage made to those families that once trusted their products to feed their children. This whole story just proves again that, just as my own personal saying goes, "if you think you've seen the lowest of it all, you'll find out that there's always a new low". What can be lower that this terrible episode about deliberate poisoning of baby formula? Unfortunately, I'm sure we'll find out, sooner or later.

My sympathy goes to those parents who have sick or dead babies as a result of this pathetic chapter of the dairy industry in China.

With information from The Globe and Mail and New Zealand Herald.
Photos by AP


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