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September 19th, 2008

Chinese Milk Scandal Exposes Nonexistent Food Safety System

The fourth infant death from contaminated powdered milk was announced in China Thursday, highlighting once again the sad state of China‚ food safety system. So far, more than 6,000 infants have fallen ill with more than a thousand requiring hospitalization since the scandal became public last week. All of the deaths have been traced to milk powder produced by the Sanlu Group, although milk and dairy products made by Yili, Mengniu Dairy, and twenty other companies have tested positive for melamine contamination.

While the first death from the tainted milk powder was reported in May, a recall was not ordered until the information became public in September. This revelation has shaken Chinese confidence in the safety of their own food supply with parents questioning what other foods may be contaminated without their knowledge.

This latest scandal has revealed the corrupt nature of the growing Chinese dairy industry. The Chinese dairy industry routinely dilutes the raw milk with water in order to increase their product while reducing its nutritional content.  Companies add the banned toxic substance melamine, which is used to make plastic, so the watered-down milk will pass chemical tests for protein levels.  Due to its high nitrogen content, melamine appears to be protein during chemical tests. To date, eighteen people have been arrested in connection with the contamination.

While so far the problem seems to be primarily affecting consumers in China, melamine was actually at the center of another food crisis last year involving imported pet food ingredients in the United States. Although the tainted pet food was recalled, some tainted livestock and fish feed made with the same imported ingredients was ignored because it contained only “low” levels of melamine.  Given this latest in a long string of scandals over tainted food in China, a growing source of imported food for the United States, it is past time for Congress and the FDA to establish strong standards (and enforce them) for imported food.

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– William Blakeley

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