Lambs No Longer Silenced: China’s Tainted Baby Formula Trial
The melamine in the baby food made by the state-owned Chinese company Sanlu killed 13 babies (that we know of) and made 300,000 (that we know of) sick. Melamine is a chemical used in the manufacture of plastics and fertilizer, which became well known in the United States in 2007 when melamine-infused pet food killed thousands of American cats and dogs. Just as with the pets, the Chinese babies died from painful kidney stones and advanced kidney disease.
The melamine was put into the baby formula because it is a cheap alternative to boosting protein content without using actual protein. In a country where profitability is placed above consumer safety, putting melamine into food products was not considered a problem – it may have been poison, but at least it was cheap.
Sanlu executives knew about the baby deaths and illnesses months before the story broke, but did not stop the use of melamine in their products. If they reported the problems when the deaths started, the story would have broken right before the Beijing Olympics, creating a big public relations nightmare for the Chinese government. In additional to their negligence in not reporting the illnesses, that they didn’t stop using the melamine when the reports came in is inexplicable and inexcusable
As the Chinese government controls the company, it was easy for the Chinese government to control the story. The cover-up was massive; no consumer warning was issued, media stories were squelched, and the required reporting to central government agencies never happened. And babies kept dying.
Unfortunately, it is not unusual for the coordinated culture of institutional corruption that permeates China’s governmental ownership of manufacturing to hide toxic products under the rug; indeed, it’s the norm.
Any system of consumer alerts that may exist on paper is never utilized, investigative stories by journalists do not reach publication, and the entrenched system of bribes and corruption at the local and provincial levels creates a permanent and lucrative series of disincentives for inspectors to report any quality control problems, either accidental or on purpose. In fact, the on-purpose ones may be the most profitable for corrupt local officials.
The only reason the baby formula story even busted beyond Sanlu’s web of secrecy is because it was reported by one of its distributors in New Zealand.
Last fall, the U.S. Food and Drug Agency opened its first foreign offices in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou to monitor product safety. In 2007, the U.S. imported $856 million in drugs and $4.4 billion in food from China; the dollar value of all goods from China in 2008 approached $2 trillion. A stream of safety problem in Chinese products led President Bush to appoint a cabinet-level task force to investigate the safety of imports, a project that ManufactureThis hopes will be continued by President Obama.
The sentences imposed on the Sanlu executives include two death sentences – one likely to be commuted to life - and two life sentences. Tian Wenhua, the highest-ranking Sanlu executive implicated in the tainted formula received a life sentence. Ironically, the Tian family suffered under the Mao’s Cultural Revolution during the late 1960s and early 1970s, as they were considered too oriented toward open markets and capitalism.
The firm death sentence was given to Sanlu executive Geng Jinping (pictured above). But important questions remain: will the sentences be carried out, or are they just for show; was the trial just a public dance to deflect attention from the corrupt local officials who received bribes to look the other way; and will this engender any kind of systemic change in quality control and consumer alerts in China?
Based on these events, it would be easy to have a conversation about the dangers inherent to the people of a country where the importance of maintaining a government controlled economy and closed political system trumps their rights to be safe and informed.
But it’s more than just a theoretical discussion of political systems or the importance of action by our own government. No one knows what the affect of the melamine scandal will have on the long-term health of the babies who survived the poisoning. And the trial did little to assuage the devastating grief of the families who lost their babies.
Our hearts break for those children and their families, and we hope that the Chinese government will take real and meaningful steps to make sure that this never happens again.
We hope. We really do.
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