Global Lessons from China’s Tainted Milk

Tragic news of children sickened by poisoned milk in China raises questions not only about its product safety system but about why infants in China are fed formula at all.

The headlines just kept getting

The Associated
Press reported on September 20 that China’s leaders were scrambling to
contain public fury over widespread contamination of milk supplies, castigating
local officials for negligence and cover-ups, while also moving to minimize
criticism of the government’s slow response. Officials promised to keep stores
supplied with clean milk and set up medical hotlines and a multi-level
treatment system for affected babies to help the traumatized Chinese public
cope with one of the worst product safety scandals in years.

Originally focused on contaminated
milk powder, the poisoned milk crisis
worsened when liquid milk was also found
to contain melamine, the industrial chemical that has killed four infants so
far and initially caused serious illnesses in 6,200 others. By September 22,
the number of sick children reported by the government jumped to an astonishing

More than 80% of the 12,892 children hospitalized were two years old or
younger, and 104 were in serious condition. Another 39,965 children received
outpatient treatment and were considered recovered by the end of September,
according to the Chinese Health Ministry.  

The company at the heart of the
scandal, Sanlu Group Company, apologized for the poisoned products and stated
that suppliers who sold the raw milk apparently added the chemical melamine – normally
used in plastics, fertilizers, and flame retardants – to make the milk seem
higher in protein due to melamine’s high nitrogen content. The milk suppliers,
in hopes of increasing their profits, watered down their milk to increase
volume and then added melamine to fraudulently boost the protein content and
bypass safety testing. When ingested, melamine causes kidney stones, which are
especially deadly to infants and small children and rapidly induces renal
failure. That
is what happened to thousands of Chinese infants and toddlers.

This deadly series of
is an embarrassing failure for China’s product safety system,
which purports to have attempted to institute tighter controls to restore
consumer confidence after a series of product safety scares in recent years
that involved poisoned medicines, seafood, toothpaste, toys, and pet food

These latest incidents represent the second major case in recent
years involving shoddy baby formula. In 2004, more than 200 Chinese infants
suffered malnutrition and at least 13 died after being fed phony formula that
contained no nutrients.

It appears that a well-organized cover-up had been brewing for months before the Sanlu
scandal was exposed. Indeed, the problem appears to have gone undetected for
months, as the first baby died in May and the second in July. Apparently,
Sanlu knew of its product contamination as early as July, and likely even as
early as December, but did not go public with the information until September.

far, eighteen suppliers of melamine and tainted milk have been arrested, with
more than 100 others being detained or questioned.

government cover-ups, lax regulations, Sanlu’s criminal silence, and the failure
of the Communist government to guarantee food safety
forced the resignation
of Li Changjang, the head of the Chinese agency that monitors food and product
safety. As head of the General Administration of Quality Supervision,
Inspection, and Quarantine, he had promised years ago to overhaul the food and
product safety system. However, this is not the failure of one man or one
department to transform a deeply corrupt system. The heart-breaking systemic
inability to accomplish basic and modern safety reforms indicates that China cannot keep
its population safe. Despite its masterful display at a highly complex Olympic
Games, China
has yet to put transparent and enforceable product safety policies in place.
After all, the boss of Sanlu, now in police custody, was a senior party
official, as are the leaders of most of the large corporations in China.

Why Not Breast Milk?

Spencer, writing from the UK in September 24’s Telegraph, blasts the Chinese
: "Tens of thousands of infants are sick after drinking tainted
baby milk. But this isn’t an ordinary health disaster – the authorities colluded
with the companies who deliberately contaminated their products and failed to
warn the public." He asks an even more critical question that is fundamental
to the health of women and babies:

Some ask why babies in China drink milk at
all: cow’s milk is not something the Chinese have traditionally liked, so there
was no particular reason for them to follow the worldwide trend towards
abandoning the breast. But the question answers itself: China is modernizing, and, to many
people, that means doing what the rest of the world does. In present-day
industrial China,
it also means building your own companies to provide what [the public] and
foreigners consume–but cheaper.

Even, apparently, if the price of higher
profits is the loss of human life.

As this tainted milk scandal grows
and affects other countries, it has forced Chinese
women to reconsider breast milk
. Breast-feeding in China has declined in
recent years, even after the 2004 scandal. The United Nations Development
Program says exclusive breastfeeding rates in China at four months of age
declined to 48% in urban areas, and 60% in rural areas in 2004, the most recent
year for which national statistics are available.

In its September 25 press release, the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA)
responded to this shocking and growing tragedy, stating that China is not the
only country to experience serious problems with ensuring the safety of
artificial milk: "There have been 71 occasions in recent years when companies
have been forced to recall batches of formula because of dangerous

Furthermore, WABA declares:

While the most stringent of
measures should be taken against unscrupulous and unethical milk companies,
WABA calls urgently for renewed support for early, exclusive, and continued
breastfeeding, and for additional resources to make this possible…. The
widespread use of commercial formula, with all of its risks and side-effects, even when not contaminated [emphasis mine], is a real danger for infants and
young children all over the word, even in wealthy countries.

Powerfully true. This is a fundamental lesson from
China’s tragedy, which has also
likely affected
milk products
in New Zealand, Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, Myanmar, the
Philippines, Indonesia, and throughout Asia, as well as in other parts of the

Optimal Young Child Feeding

infant and young child feeding
is defined globally as early and exclusive
breastfeeding for the first six months of a child’s life, and continued breastfeeding
for up to two years or longer, followed by the gradual introduction of
age-appropriate, nutrient-rich complementary foods from six months. Yet recently,
national and international funding for public education and the training of
health workers to support breastfeeding has seriously decreased. There has been
a decline in the number of hospitals implementing the WHO/UNICEF Baby-Friendly
Hospital Initiative, which incorporates the critical Ten Steps for Successful
Breastfeeding, and disallows the unethical promotion of breastfeeding
substitutes in health facilities.

In China, for example, at one time,
maternity hospitals fully supported breastfeeding and this significant
initiative. However, by the high level of formula use reflected in the
pandemic, this practice may no longer be in place.

Susan Siew, Co-Director of WABA,
states: "A tragedy such as this should not
again. The majority of mothers, given appropriate support, timely
and accurate information, and protection from aggressive marketing of infant
formulas, are able to breastfeed. For working mothers, both in the formal and
informal sectors, we need to provide an enabling environment with adequate
maternity entitlements including maternity leave, flexible work arrangements,
and mother-baby-friendly facilities at the workplace."

Even as WABA and numerous other
organizations urge all members of the international community concerned with
global health to renew and increase their funding and dedication to breastfeeding,
it is clear that this demand is the tip of the iceberg for women and children,
as it essentially requires a transformation of virtually all societies. Women’s
and children’s needs must truly be respected, honored, and prioritized. Part of
this requires a societal milieu where breastfeeding is supported, encouraged, convenient,
dignified, safe, and viable for women everywhere.

Regretfully, this is not simple to
achieve because this complex dilemma pits the value and welfare of women and
children against the might of state-sanctioned corporate greed and endemic governmental
corruption. While we should not turn our attention away from solving China’s
contaminated milk pandemic at this time, it’s evident that the struggle for
women’s and children’s rights and health is global.

All of us must stay focused on
correcting the institutional milieu that precipitated this tragedy in China. In the
process — as we expose the regulatory shortcomings and recognize the corruption
of many governments — we must urge that each society learns to prevent this
pattern from repeating elsewhere.

It is lesson for all of us.

For now, I dread tomorrow’s
headlines. Where and when will more babies and children die from poisoned milk?