In an earlier piece on this blog it was reported how the food control regime in China enforces the food safety laws, even going to the extent of executing the head of the monitoring organization found to have been guilty of wrong doings. Now comes the news about an episode involving contamination of baby food with a toxic chemical, not inadvertently but deliberately for increased profits by the dairy farmers in a part of the country. The perplexing question is why this happens in a country like China with a strong deterrent policy in place. Of course there will be punishment and some heads will roll, whether real culprits or scapegoats as, for China their image is more important than the right to justice for its citizens.
Melamine is a toxic chemical which has no relation to any food but used commercially in coatings and laminates, wood adhesives, fabric coatings, ceiling tiles, flame retardants etc, none of which is connected with food processing operations. Ingesting melamine (Tripolycyanamide) is known to contribute to formation of kidney stones, cause urinary track ulcers and irritation of eyes and skin. The incidence of the present contamination has caused death of one infant while about 50 others were affected by life threatening kidney stones in north western Gansu province and nearby, which forced its manufacturer Sanlu Group to recall 8200 tons of the product from the market. The prompt action in countries like US and New Zealand in advising their citizens to avoid Chines made infant foods is bound to affect the reputation of the country in international forums in the coming years. Absence of a food supply chain accountability system will make it
difficult to pin point the source of contamination.
The early report put out by China blames the diary producers for this unfortunate tragedy. Adding water to milk is an age old practice which prevails all over the world but the ingenuity to mask this misdeed is what is dangerous. It is known that the milk producers in India generally use thickeners to tamper with the lactometer readings but rarely any unsafe chemicals. Melamine contamination has been attributed to the use of the nitrogen-rich melamine deliberately to boost the nitrogen value and consequently the apparent protein value in the milk. Whether it is due to low procurement price offered by the processor or it is just plain greed, is a matter of conjecture and the world is unlikely to know the truth from a country which does not have a clean record in transparency. In 2004, in a similar incidence 13 infants died due to consumption of tainted milk powder from the same company. As for India, it offers a lesson to its food industry here that eternal vigilance has no substitute if consumer safety is upper most in their mind and food products it offers should have safety standards even higher than what the government stipulates in order to have a cushion against such contingency. In a free and democratic country consumer credibility and loyalty only can ensure success in the market place.