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China Confirms Milk Complaints Began in 2007

Sep 25, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP In the midst of yet another tainted food scandal in China, it has been revealed that one of China’s largest dairy producers received consumer complaints about its baby milk formula as early as December 2007.  This is much earlier than previously thought and 10 months prior to the producer ordering a nationwide recall over concerns its formula was sullied with melamine, a toxic industrial chemical.  The disclosure was made in a government report made public by China’s official Xinhua News Agency and is yet another indication that Sanlu Group, the dairy producer at the epicenter of this massive scandal, repeatedly attempted to hide information about its contaminated supplies.  Although the report did not specify the nature or number of complaints, it did place the timing at significantly earlier than when first reported.

The melamine-tainted powdered milk formula has sickened over 53,000 infants and killed three children nationwide, according to the Health Ministry.  The illnesses and deaths led to recalls of Chinese-made dairy products in China and other parts of Asia, which has devastated China’s huge dairy industry and has added to ongoing concerns about the quality of food and consumer products made in China.

Earlier this month, government investigators reported that Sanlu officials delayed acting on consumer complaints and warnings as far back as June, and that local government officials in Hebei were aware of the problems in early August; Sanlu did not announce the nationwide recall until September.  The Fonterra Group of New Zealand—one of the world’s biggest dairy exporters and with a 43 percent stake in Sanlu—said it urged its Chinese partner to announce a recall in August, but company and local government officials refused, waiting until the illnesses and deaths became impossible to ignore.  Food safety experts say the delays may have allowed tainted supplies to sicken tens of thousands of children.

The timing is suspicious and the delays have led to broad speculation that Sanlu and some government officials covered up the problem while the Olympics were ongoing in Beijing and aslo urged Chinese journalists and companies not to release the negative news during the world event.  But, now, the problem has spun out of control with hundreds of parents rushing to hospitals, groceries removing dairy products from shelves, and farmers discarding milk supplies.  Prior to this, the Chinese dairy industry had experienced decade-long growth, due in part to the government’s initiative prompting the Chinese to drink more milk.

Concerns over melamine—a chemical used in the production of plastics, fertilizer, and fire retardants—led to the government unearthing proof that products made by 21 other dairy producers, including some very popular brands in that country, were also melamine tainted.

Now, this week, the head of the nation’s quality watchdog, the chairwoman of the Sanlu, and several government officials from Hebei Province were forced to resign.  Over 7,000 tons of dairy products had been removed from store shelves and, according to the Associated Press, China’s Ministry of Agriculture said the nation’s dairy collection system was “out of control,” which made it ripe for unscrupulous businesses to intentionally spike dairy supplies with melamine, which can be used to illegally and artificially inflate protein counts in milk and other foods.

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