Return of China's Milk Issue
Image Credit: Marina Shemesh

Return of China's Milk Issue

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China’s food safety standards are under fire again as a 4-year-old boy lies dead, and his mother in a coma, after drinking a bottle of Minute Maid strawberry-flavored milk last Tuesday that police say was laced with toxic pesticide.  The incident has drawn attention to the country’s weak – and possibly weakening – standards for safe milk, and raised the specter of powerful special interests. In doing so, it has also created a political opportunity to level accusations at large Chinese companies unconnected with the latest case of poison milk.

Food safety is a perennially explosive issue in China, and milk the biggest one since the 2008 Sanlu milk powder scandal exposed state-owned companies and officials suppressing the recall of a product that sickened tens of thousands of infants in order to protect their careers.

Chinese parents who could afford it turned away from Chinese-made milk products after the 2008 scandal – I’ve heard that importing foreign milk into China is still as good as a license to print money.  So a poisoning scandal involving Minute Maid, a subsidiary of Coca-Cola, is a particular shock. The Coca-Cola company, however, isn’t a milk importer – its overseas bottling plants are locally run using largely domestic supply chains, and the Financial Times reports that many Weibo users aren’t blaming the company:

“But very few of the Weibo comments about the Coke incident blamed the famous drinks brand. Most Weibo comments appeared to assume that the poisoning was deliberate and not the result of a lapse in quality control by Coke.”

The Chinese public has instead turned its attention to China’s food safety administration, which issued a set of remarkably weak standards for milk in June – including, remarkably, lowering the minimum protein content of milk sold in China from 2.95 per hundred grams to 2.8 – a significant step away from the developed world standard of 3.0.  The poisoning in the Sanlu scandal was caused by melamine, an industrial chemical which manufacturers used to disguise low protein contents.  The new standards also allow milk to contain as many as 2 million bacteria per milliliter, some 20 times the allowable amount in the United States and EU.

The sheer audacity of lowering China’s most-watched food safety standard has raised suggestions of powerful special interests – an article in The People’s Daily quoted Zeng Shouying, vice director of the Dairy Industry Committee of China Dairy Association claiming that China's three major dairy companies exploited their advisory role in the drafting committee to remove tougher standards proposed by experts.  The Ministry of Health responded yesterday in the pages of the same paper, telling the journalist that “it was right that dairy producers, crucial to the safety of their produce, should be represented in the drafting committee.”

It may be surprising to some to see accusations of corruption emerging in the pages of an “official mouthpiece” – but in fact it is fairly normal for a newspaper that often seems to function as an in-house journal for the Communist Party – carrying regular top-down announcements from the club president, but equally often essays and remarks about ideas under debate by the members. The milk issue gave Zeng a chance to complain about the increasing power of state-owned companies to influence policy through economic might and cozy relationships with ministries – a theme that seems to be generating discomfort among a growing section of the Chinese government.

At any rate, focusing on the irregular dealings of the three big dairy SOEs is a stroke of luck for one party to the milk issue – Coca-Cola.  

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