Posted by: Bruce Einhorn on October 23, 2008
The Chinese milk scandal is not just a milk scandal anymore. The chemical keeps showing up in other Chinese-made foods: Yesterday came news South Korea is destroying tons of egg products imported from China after tests revealed melamine, a chemical typically used in making plastics. “Melamine was detected in duck’s yolk powder, egg power [sic], albumen power [sic] and yolk liquid, 47.1 tons of which were imported from China on April 17 and 18,” reports Korea’s Chosun Ilbo, which adds the government’s health ministry “ordered the immediate destruction of 23.2 tons currently held by importers and halted shipping of more.” Eggs and dairy aren’t the only foods at risk, either. On Tuesday, the Hong Kong government said it will start testing meat and vegetables for melamine, too.
Up till now, the story has seemed pretty straightforward: Since melamine can artificially boost protein levels in milk, unscrupulous people in China’s dairy industry decided make some extra money by watering down their milk and using melamine to cover that up. But meat and vegetables? How could they be tainted by melamine? Reuters explains: “Cyromazine, a derivative of melamine, is widely used in pesticides and animal feed in China, and experts say it is absorbed in plants as melamine and that the chemical is already in the human food chain.”
The San Francisco Chronicle nutrition columnist and NYU professor Marion Nestle had a good analysis on this in Wednesday’s paper. She points out that the history of people adding melamine to food goes back decades, starting in South Africa in the 1960s. Although it didn’t take long to realize how dangerous this could be (the sheep who ate the melamine-laced animal feed developed kidney disease and died), melamine use in animal feed remained so common in the 1970s “Italian scientists invented a test to look for ‘melammina’ in fish feed. They found melamine in nearly 60 percent of the tested samples.”
As Nestle points out, it’s therefore not fair to blame only Chinese. People in China weren’t the first to discover melamine, and the U.S. has had its share of scandal involving greedy business people in the food industry endangering the health of consumers. What this scandal does point out, again, is the need for the Chinese government to focus more, a lot more, on enforcing safety rules and overseeing industry. For now, Beijing seems to be trying to show it has a grip by publicizing arrests: Yesterday Xinhua reported police had jailed six people for alleged involvement in the melamine scandal. That’s on top of the 36 people already arrested.
That’s fine, but that’s just a start. More disclosure wouldn’t hurt. For instance, how many people have died from this scandal? The official count is four – but it’s been four for weeks. Are we to believe that tens of thousands of babies have been sickened from the tainted milk – with no one else dying? The Chronicle’s Nestle doesn’t buy it. “These numbers are undoubtedly underestimates,” she writes. Unfortunately, she’s probably right.
BusinessWeek’s team of Asia reporters brings you the latest insights on business, politics, technology and culture from some of the world’s biggest and fastest-growing economies. Eye on Asia’s bloggers include Asia regional editor Bruce Einhorn, Tokyo reporter Ian Rowley, Korea bureau chief Moon Ihlwan, Asia News Editor and China Bureau Chief. Dexter Roberts, and Hong Kong-based Asia correspondent Frederik Balfour.