The milk of a dairy firm's unkindness

Updated: 2012-01-07 07:54

By He Bolin (China Daily)

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Play soccer and drink milk for a healthy and strong body. This may be true in many other countries, but not entirely so in China after what has happened over the past few years.

Soccer, however, seems to be undergoing a "purification" process through the ongoing trial of former China Football Association officials. It is even likely that it will be freed of all its toxic factors such as match-fixing, bribery and gambling.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the dairy industry. Just as corruption in soccer has devastated soccer fans time and again, contamination-related scandals in the dairy industry have harmed people, especially children, and caused severe physical and mental strain on the public.

The latest milk food scandal involves dairy industry giant Mengniu, a batch of whose milk tested positive for a cancer-causing toxin. The General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine published the results of a random check on Mengniu products on Dec 24, which said excessive aflatoxin, a carcinogen, was found in the company's tested samples. The test found that on average 1 kilogram of Mengniu's product contained 1.2 micrograms of aflatoxin, when the maximum permissible limit is 0.5 micrograms.

This is especially alarming because aflatoxin is virulent in terms of toxicity and the World Health Organization (WHO) has classified it as a first-class carcinogen. WHO listed aflatoxin way back in 1993 as being among the most carcinogenic substances ever known. High-level aflatoxin exposure causes acute hepatic necrosis (death of liver cells and tissues), leading to cirrhosis and/or carcinoma of the liver.

Though adults rarely succumb to acute aflatoxicosis, children are vulnerable to aflatoxin exposure, which leads to stunted growth and delayed development.

Perhaps it was in the fitness of things that Mengniu's website was hacked recently, and the hackers used (rather altered) Mengniu's well-known slogan - drinking half a kg of Mengniu milk every day will make people strong - to ridicule it. Tired of the milk food scandals, the hackers changed the word "strong" to "dead".

Such a major scandal would have destroyed any company's fame and business, but not Mengniu's. In fact, it has been involved in a quite a few food scandals in recent years.

Undeterred by the scandal, Mengniu explained that the carcinogen in its milk came from cattle feed, and it would take time to trace the dairy farmers who used such feed.

True, cattle feed can produce aflatoxin if it is stored for a long time. But individual or small-scale cattle farmers don't have the money to buy feed in huge quantities and store them till they become moldy. It is highly likely, therefore, that companies running large farms, such as Modern Farming, a large cow-breeding company closely related to Mengniu, would do so. Modern Farming farms have the highest cattle density in the world, and hence its need to store huge quantities of feed. And according to Mengniu and Modern Farming's strategic contract, the former gets the priority to purchase 90 percent of the latter's supplies.

It is the obligation of such companies to test for aflatoxin, which is resistant to heat and cannot be eliminated by pasteurizing, in feed and dairy products both. The Food Safety Law says a food producing enterprise should establish a mechanism to check the raw materials, food additives and food-related products it buys, and faithfully record the names, specifications and quantities of the materials, and names and contact details of the suppliers and the purchase dates. But Mengniu has tuned a blind eye to such legal obligations.

To the public's surprise, Mengniu has survived several milk product scandals within a short period when even one of them could have devastated a company in the developed world. Worse, it has not even recalled its products once, something any conscientious company would have done in such situations.

Should we then believe in a company that doesn't follow even the basic ethics of business?

Indignant consumers have given a call online to boycott the brand. Maybe they should learn from the case of an elderly American woman, who filed a suit against McDonald's after she suffered burns from coffee spillage and won hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation, and move a court against Mengniu to demand damages for the contaminated products they have been sold and the harm they have suffered.

And it's time the authorities adhered to stricter quality control supervision and revised the punitive laws to not only deter companies like Mengniu from selling contaminated products, but also to safeguard consumers' health.

The author is a reporter with China Daily.

(China Daily 01/07/2012 page5)