The dairies of Inner Mongolia now form a powerful lobby in Chinese supermarkets. Adverts selling milk products are all over the place, and pushily insist on a number of bespoke varieties – this one for stronger bones, that one for more energy. They are so pro-active because Chinese parents have largely given up feeding Chinese milk to their children, after major scandals in the early 21st century. Chinese milk is probably the safest it has ever been, but public trust is at an all-time low.
In 2004, sixteen Chinese children died of malnutrition after they were fed a ‘milk formula’ that turned out to be nutritionally worthless. This was no manufacturing error, but a deliberate scam that cruelly led several families to literally starve their own children to death, while believing that they were feeding them.
In 2007, a new problem arose, not over what was missing, but what was being added, when pet deaths in America were traced to melamine in the food chain. This had entered into Chinese pet food through contaminated animal feed, although the size of the problem was difficult to judge without a national veterinary database – fourteen confirmed pet deaths, but several thousand reported. It was claimed that mixing melamine into animal feed had been a common practice for years, in the mistaken belief that there were no ill effects. Many animals were butchered before they died of renal failure from melamine poisoning, but this only delayed the discovery until it built up further along the food chain. Extensive testing found melamine in hundreds of food products for both pets and people, leading the FDA and Department of Agriculture to estimate that up to three million Americans might have, for example, eaten chickens that had been reared on contaminated feed. Chinese food exports, also of chicken, powdered egg and wheat gluten, were found to be similarly tainted.
Back in China, the food chain was discovered to be directly contaminated, when the budget dairy Sanlu was accused in November 2008 of selling a milk powder product that had been adulterated with melamine in an attempt to show higher protein levels. This may well have made the milk seem healthier, but it directly affected the health of some 300,000 people, many of them children in low-income families. Six children died of renal failure, while the original whistleblower, an employee at Sanlu who had been querying production standards since 2006, was later found stabbed to death in mysterious circumstances. A Chinese investigation later found similar contamination in 22 Chinese companies, causing a massive crisis of confidence, particularly among Chinese mothers. It is now far more likely for Chinese mothers to feed their children exclusively on a diet of foreign milk formula, often sourced from Germany or New Zealand. Ironically, a New Zealand company, Fonterra, had owned a 43% stake in Sanlu, and had called for a recall on suspect products eight months before the scandal broke. The deadly delay was blamed on mismanagement at a local level, as Chinese employees tried to save face by avoiding a public announcement of any danger.