The Xinhua news agency in China last week reported that the Chinese authorities have seized another batch of milk powder laced with the toxic melamine. The 38 tonnes of milk product were found in the northwest of China, in the Gansu and Qinghai provinces. The products contained up to 500 times more than the permitted level of melamine.Used to make plastics, fertilisers and concrete, melamine is an industrial compound. The substance is added to foods by unscrupulous companies, because it gives misleadingly high results for protein with its high nitrogen content. But in large quantities, melamine causes kidney stones and kidney failure. Small children are particularly vulnerable to its effects.
When the melamine scandal first broke in 2008, it was found in the products of 22 dairy products in China, one out of every five suppliers. Six infants died as a result of being fed the tainted milk and more than 300,000 children became ill. The 22 firms responsible for selling the tainted products had to pay out 161 million dollars to the families of those affected.
Public anger was intense and the Chinese authorities convicted 21 people over the scandal, including milk producers, traders and executives. In November last year, two people were executed for their part in the production and selling of melamine-laced products. But quantities of the original milk supplies, which should have been destroyed, seem to have made their way back into circulation. In January this year, products of three different companies were removed from supermarkets in the Guizhou province after testing again revealed high levels of melamine.
These latest seizures are likely to re-ignite the fears of mothers in China, who have learnt to mistrust products on the shelves because of ineffective monitoring and regulation within the food industry. In June 2007, following various scandals over food and drugs, ranging from contamination to fake antibiotics, the Chinese government issued a five-year plan to improve safety standards. The plan aims to implement an improved structure of food monitoring and a system of inspections for producers. The seizure this week shows the authorities are keen to make progress in this area, though with possible corruption and the buying of required documentation, this problem remains a hard one for the authorities to stamp out.In the meanwhile, some within the dairy industry of China are suggesting that every batch of product needs to be tested to ensure the safety of the food mothers are giving to their children.