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China Melamine Problems Could Get Worse

Nov 7, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP
China Melamine Problems

China Melamine Scandal Could Worsen

Many believe that the current China melamine scandal could worsen given past scandals that emerged out of that country.

What is now being called “The Chinese Product Safety Scandal of 2008,” seemingly began with the deaths of four infants and the sickening and hospitalization of tens of thousands of children in China as a result of consuming melamine-tainted formula.  Upon investigation, a long-established chain of greed, incompetence, negligence, and ignorance allowed the toxic industrial chemical entry into not only China’s food chain, but into the international food market, as well.  Inspections and action only occurred after the situation spiraled completed out of control and when the problem was first brought to the attention of the authorities months ago—as early as January, infants in China being fed Sanlu brand baby formula were developing kidney problems—it was downplayed and ignored by company and government officials for months.

Now that the situation has run amok and recalls over tainted China-imported food products are occurring internationally, other tainted products are beginning to be identified.  Despite this, officials in China claim the problems are not systemic and are isolated incidents.  Regardless, others in the industry have admitted that melamine tainting is a widespread and accepted aspect of the food chain in that country.  And even though 3,600 tons of contaminated eggs were discovered, China’s agriculture minister, Sun Zhengcai, is still maintaining that the tainted eggs are an isolated incident.

The Dangerous Effects of Melamine

But is the incident isolated and did problems only start with the 2008 melamine scandal?  Just going back one year, in 2007, the deaths of over 100 Panamanians was traced to cough medicine tainted with dietheylene glycol from China.  Hundreds of pets in the United States and Canada were killed—many more were sickened—after eating food made from Chinese raw ingredients found to be tainted with melamine.  Then, more problems surfaced with Chinese-produced toys, tires, seafood, pharmaceuticals, and toothpaste.  Beijing took very extreme measures, including executing Zheng Xiaoyo, the former head of the State Food and Drug Administration, for accepting $850,000 in bribes from drug companies, but China still maintained that the global community was exaggerating and the Chinese embassy in Washington declared that it was "unacceptable for some to launch groundless smear attacks on China" over food and drug safety problems.

Now, perhaps, what was being said in 2007 was not without merit.  "The greatest irony is that with all the international criticism last year, they knew there were problems.  They did some spot checks, but the bureaucratic system didn't pick this up as a significant issue," said Dali Yang, director of the Center for East Asian Studies at the University of Chicago.  Marion Nestle, a public health professor at New York University and author of the recent book "Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine,” notes that once melamine showed up in pet food supplies, it was likely that it would appear in animal feed and eventually human food. "You can't separate the food supplies of animals, pets, and people," she says. "That's an enormous warning sign that if something wasn't done immediately to clean up the food safety problem, this would leak into the human food supply,” adding that, "If animals are fed this stuff, then they have it in their meat."

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