Wednesday, September 24, 2008

China Milk Scandal: Updated - 8 October 2008

For those who are interested in the dairy industry, there is a lesson to be learned from the milk scandal that was finally brought under control in China. For those who have had their head under a rock for the last few days, more than 10,000 children had to be hospitalized across China after consuming formula or dairy products contaminated with melamine, a cheap industrial chemical. The latest estimates have over 90,000 children sickened by the melamine-tainted milk.

To quote from a recent International Hearld and Tribune article:

"China has brought under control a tainted milk scandal in which thousands of children fell ill with kidney stones, a senior official said Wednesday, as Prime Minister Wen Jiabao vowed tougher monitoring.Beijing is battling public alarm and international dismay after close to 13,000 Chinese children crowded hospitals, ill from infant milk formula tainted with melamine, a cheap industrial chemical that can be used to cheat quality checks."

Reaction by Chinese dairy farmers was summarized in a recent news article. A description of the situation and the regulatory approach for the Chinese dairy industry has been published. Additional problems with milk powder continue to be found, even in October, 2008. Of course, the problems are found with milk powder, which has a long storage life and is made when there is excess fresh milk.

The background on why it happened is below, but the lesson to be learned is the same lesson we've learned over and over again. When a problem is found, be proactive about it. Inform people and correct the problem as soon as possible. When Johnson & Johnson found problems with Tylenol, they operated what has become the textbook case of doing it right.

What happened in China is that it appears that there was heavy pressure to not have any bad news before or during the recent Olympic Games. The Chinese milk companies knew of problems and people becoming sick when they asked the Chinese government to help them manage the media during the Olympics.. Outside investors encouraged the individuals to recall products, but it was not done. This may become instead, the textbook case of doing it wrong.

Melamine when added to milk or other food-like products 'tricks' the chemical tests on the product into appearing to have higher levels of protein. Protein is often the most costly ingredient in something like pet food, so the melamine was added to pet food ingredients exported from China in 2007, and ended up poisoning dogs and cats in many countries.

With milk, melamine was added in China during 2008, and possibly before, to boost protein content after adding water to milk. Evidently milk freezing point was not evaluated as it is in the US to check for addition of water to milk. A Chinese feed mill operator was quoted by Reuters as saying that addition of melamine to milk "was rampant" for two reasons. The first was water dilution, but the second was more subtle. Protein levels in milk can decline when cows are feed very low quality feed. Farmers would have their milk rejected if milk protein levels were low, so melamine was added so that milk companies would accept their milk. Chinese dairy farmers now view themselves as victims. The Chinese government has announced toughened rules for the dairy industry.

New Zealand seems to have taken the lead in testing for melamine, perhaps due to the connection between and investment from a New Zealand dairy company, Fonterra, in the leading Chinese dairy company. High levels of melamine have now been found in candy imported from China. This is likely from milk being used in the candy manufacturing process.

Now, there is increased call for testing in Europe of cookies, chocolates or toffees where the level of milk powder used in manufacture is more than 15%.

Other countries are now following suit and expanding the number of products that are being tested for melamine. Descriptions of some of the various products have been published.

Adding water to milk to boost milk volume is nothing new. Dairy farmers are often paid according to the volume of milk delivered, and everyone knows water is cheaper and easier to obtain than milk. I'm sure it's tempting, and I remember being a young boy and asking my dad why people didn't add water to milk. He told me "Adding water would be cheating, and cheaters always get caught."

In retrospect, he's right. They get caught, but sometimes after tragic damage. Let's hope this never happens to the US dairy industry! An interesting post by Chris Galen discusses why he thinks we have the precautions in place in the US to prevent it from happening here.

Hope that helps.