Tuesday, September 23, 2008

China’s milk scandal has been blown out of proportion

By China Watcher

The serious repercussions of China’s tainted milk scandal is limited to mainland China and to a certain extent Hong Kong where there were two reported cases of infants suffering from kidney stones.

Western new agencies like AFP, Reuters, CNN, BBC and the likes have a field day reporting that the WORLD is distressed from the spillover over the lack of or poor administration of the food laws and safety guards in China. The governments in Taiwan, Japan, Singapore, Vietnam, Philippines and Malaysia have announced a ban on Chinese dairy products.

What is most surprising is, Malaysia who has NEVER allowed any milk and dairy products from China (with an existing ban), has conveniently joined the bandwagon in announcing a ban (on top of another ban). Why ban when it is not even allowed in the first place? Isn’t this a case of over-reacting? I could truly understand if it happened in Singapore because of its “Kiasi or Kiasu” mentality or if translated means “scared to die” or “afraid to lose out”.

The trend to ban China’s milk and milk products has now reached 12 countries especially in Asia and Africa. So, it is not the whole WORLD which is involved but it is limited to certain Asian and African countries. Fortunately, China’s dairy products have not made it to the shores of the US and European countries, otherwise, you can bet the hue and cry from the Western media and its politicians are even more distasteful and ugly.

The people who suffered most from the failure of the China’s Food Quality and Inspection Unit to strictly monitor the dairy production industry are the Chinese people. These people will have my deepest sympathy. Almost 52,000 children have fallen ill and 4 infant fatalities were reported. More children falling sick are expected in the couple of weeks as warned by the Chinese authorities. It is quite normal for the numbers to increase as the tainted milk products is quite widespread and milk, both liquid and powdered, is a very important food for younger people. Chinese societies have today evolved into one which is dependent on cow’s milk compared to the situation 30 years ago, when most Chinese families relied on breastfeeding to feed their young as most of them are too poor to afford milk products.

Hans Troedsson, the China’s representative from the World Health Organization, puts it in the right perspective when he commented that China has a huge population of 1.3 billion people and the figures announced may be staggering but when compared to its population, even a million people affected is no big deal (only 0.07%). The WHO is now in China to discuss with the Chinese officials on how to strengthen the food monitoring and reporting systems.

Chinese investigators have placed the blame on raw milk suppliers, in the hope of making more profit, may have diluted their milk to increase the volume and then add melamine to artificially boost the protein content. If you analyze the life threatening effects of melamine, the victims consist of those who have consumed the contaminated product in large quantities over a prolong period of time like infants or kids who drink it almost daily.

I am not trying to justify the act of adding melamine in food products as the medium to long term harmful effects of the chemical are real but if you consume food that contains only a small portion of it as ingredient and that the food itself constitutes only a small percentage of the total amount of food ingested, it is actually not life threatening.

I personally believe that the pace of China’s economic development is way too fast for the authorities to effectively supervise. On an indirect basis, the Chinese cultural belief and philosophy “of getting rich is good” has led to the birth of unethical and selfish businessmen who will disregard social responsibility in their quest to become rich. Hence, the food safety mechanisms need to be continually revised to anticipate the actions of these groups of unscrupulous businessmen.

The entrepreneurial spirit of the Chinese is to achieve prosperity and wealth in the shortest time possible, and to use the most convenient and least costly path even to the extent of giving bribes, receiving kickbacks and cutting “corners” at the expense of quality. Since the opening up of China in the early 80s, China’s approving systems and structures are littered with corruption allegations of which the authorities have, time and again, mentioned their desire to bring it to an acceptable level. But do they have the political will to do so? Or if there is, are the provincial authorities supportive or working closely with the central government on the same matter? Or are the various Ministries working in tandem to wipe out or reduce this particular society’s menace?

I also have to praise the Chinese government for quickly accepting responsibilities for the worse food safety scare this century by forcing the Head of the Chinese quality watchdog to resign and the sacking of the top party official, the mayor and 4 officials from the north Chinese city of Shijiazhuang, where Sanlu is based, for deliberate delays or attempts to cover up the matter to the higher authorities. Additionally, the State media also reported that eighteen employees and milk collection owners have been arrested in connection with the case, including the sacked head of Sanlu Group, and dozens have been detained for questioning. Accepting responsibilities and the willingness to revamp the reporting mechanisms with prompt and accurate reports are good attributes of a people’s government promoting transparency.

I have no doubt that the Chinese authorities will be able to reform and devise a practical and effective food and safety monitoring and reporting mechanism to restore public confidence in the production of Chinese foods and to avoid a repetition of another food scandal at a time when the country can ill-afford.

To revive Chinese people confidence in Chinese food and foodstuff is crucial as it will ensure the survival of the local food industries in the country. China has a large population and the industry players cannot afford to loose this growing lucrative domestic market which will also help to ease the outflow of funds if foodstuffs are to be imported wholesale.

Exporting the goods is secondary as it may take a while before foreign parties and governments are willing to buy Chinese foodstuffs after the battered reputation from this tainted milk scandal.

No comments: