Failing a generation: children undergoing medical checks for possible kidney stones wait with their parents at a hospital in Chengdu, Sichuan province Photo: REUTERS
Tens of thousands of infants are sick after drinking tainted baby milk. But this isn’t an ordinary health disaster – the authorities colluded with the companies who deliberately contaminated their products and failed to warn the public.
The boss of Sanlu, now sacked and in police custody, was a senior party official, as are the leaders of most big companies in China.
Telegraph | Sep 24, 2008
The poisoning of China’s babies
By Richard Spencer
Disaster befell the parents of Jiao Zizhou because, poor as they were, they could afford baby milk. What they could not afford were hospital fees.
Visitors to China often look at its diversity, its grand civic buildings, its sweatshops, its new rich, its desperate poor, and compare it to Dickens, and talk about the growing pains of developing societies. Jiao Zizhou, a 10-month-old baby from southern China, gives growing pains a name.
Zizhou’s parents fed him on baby milk from a company called Sanlu, which means Three Deer in Chinese. At just under £3 for a 400g bag, it was cheap but reputable. Produced by the biggest formula manufacturer in China, it was consumed by babies from north to south, even in rural areas like the village in impoverished Guizhou province where Zizhou’s parents live.
Some ask why babies in China drink milk at all: cow’s milk is not something the Chinese have traditionally liked, so there was no particular reason for them to follow the worldwide trend towards abandoning the breast. But the question answers itself: China is modernising and, to many people, that means doing what the rest of the world does. In present-day industrial China, it also means building your own companies to provide what foreigners consume – but cheaper.
Few people questioned the competitive pricing, and certainly not Zizhou’s parents, until they started to worry about his health last month. He stopped being able to urinate and, though a local clinic was unable to diagnose the problem, he fell into a fever a week later. The children’s hospital in Guizhou’s provincial capital gave him an ultrasound scan on August 9, which showed a swelling in the kidneys. He was diagnosed with obstructions in his urinary tract and acute renal failure, and transferred to the region’s biggest city, Chongqing.
What his parents had no way of knowing was that Zizhou was one of more than 50,000 babies to have fallen sick from drinking formula milk. Most had drunk Sanlu, little knowing that its powder had been deliberately tainted with a chemical called melamine.
Melamine is a plastic, not a notorious poison. For a while in the Sixties, melaware crockery was all the rage in Western households. But you weren’t supposed to eat it, and melamine has side-effects: it causes kidney stones if it gets into the food chain. On the other hand, it also boosts nitrogen readings, often used as a rough test for protein content.
Melamine, in other words, makes low-quality food look better than it is, it was being poured into weak or watered-down milk supplies before it was collected, not only by Sanlu but by other manufacturers, before being turned into powder.
What has shocked many people in China, even those used to a heavily censored media, is how many people knew about the problem before it went public. Initial investigations by the government suggest that Sanlu first started receiving complaints in December of last year. By March, the number of complaints was sufficient for it to start its own inquiries. In May, a baby died in Gansu province in the far west and, by July, authorities there were concerned enough about the number of sick infants that they called in the ministry of health. Gansu officials suspected Sanlu was to blame – it was the only food many of the babies had consumed.
On August 1, Sanlu received the results of its own tests; the following day it told the authorities in the city where the company is based, Shijiazhuang, south of Beijing. The city authorities did nothing.
Even this late, a public warning would have made Zizhou’s parents – and the doctors who first saw him – aware of what might have been wrong with him. But there was another factor.
Three days before, Shijiazhuang had been host to the Olympic torch as it circled the country on its way to its triumphant arrival in Beijing for China’s long-awaited Games. It seemed wrong to spoil the moment: in fact, the central authorities had specifically warned the media that this was a sensitive time and “bad news” items such as health scares should be played down.
It was not until September 11 that a warning was finally given, as reports started appearing in the media of “a certain firm’s” problems with baby milk. Two days later, the New Zealand government, notified by Fonterra, a New Zealand company which owns a minority stake in Sanlu’s operations and has three directors on its board, told the Chinese leadership of its concerns.
Since then, the truth has slipped out little by little: the fact that liquid milk, as well as formula, was affected, and that China’s two biggest dairy names, Yili, an Olympic sponsor, and Mengniu, which is listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange and has a joint venture with Arla, the European food giant, were implicated along with Sanlu.
The disaster has had one beneficial effect: the intervention by the New Zealand government showed China that it could no longer ignore advice from abroad. Meanwhile, the discovery of tainted products in places such as Hong Kong and Singapore, gateways to the international trading system, proved once and for all that a problem in one country is a problem for all. Even the European Commission has demanded an urgent review of all processed foods imported from China.
Other countries have health scares and cover-ups: Britain had BSE. But there was something particularly crude about China’s. It has some top-of-the-range dairy facilities. But it also has middlemen unscrupulous enough to water down milk and disguise it with melamine, and companies who at least turn a blind eye.
Even cruder was the story of Wang Yuanping, who for many has become the symbol of the moral dilemmas the Chinese face nowadays. In May, he told Sanlu that his daughter’s urine showed changes after drinking their product. The company said it would offer a refund, but that if it carried out tests on the powder they would not tell him the results because they would be “commercial secrets”.
After they offered him £200 of free milk to take down the internet post he wrote about his experiences, he approached the local commerce bureau with his complaint. They told him that he would have to pay a fee of hundreds of pounds for tests, which he couldn’t afford. So he took down the post, accepted the milk, and gave it to his friends – a decision that has racked him with guilt and made him an object of both criticism and sympathy. “You did your best,” some said.
As the number of babies known to have fallen sick has multiplied from the hundreds to the tens of thousands, and as humiliating detail has followed humiliating detail, some have asked how a government that can lay on such a magnificent Olympics can so spectacularly fail its citizens.
Wen Jiabao, the popular prime minister, has been touring hospitals, offering moral support to weeping mothers and threatening punishment all round. Li Changjiang, the minister in charge of product safety, has been forced to resign.
That was a telling moment. Mr Li became a celebrity last year for his handling of the row over poisoned Chinese exports, which began with pet food tainted with melamine and moved on to lead-coated toys. He said it was a “foreign plot” by Western countries to protect themselves from Chinese imports. That hubris has now been his undoing, as it has China’s.
This is not just because in its Olympic determination to show off its perfect new Beijing it overlooked the troubles of its less sophisticated hinterland; or because it thought that by winning prestige around the world the government could more easily win favour at home, though both are true.
It is also because the success of the Games has raised expectations.
Four years ago, there was another baby milk scandal, when 13 babies died in one province from drinking fake formula. The story made some waves locally, and brought exactly the same response from the government: threatened punishment and promises of better control. But then it was forgotten.
“On that occasion, it was the responsibility of local milk producers, but now all the major dairy brands in China are all involved in the scandal,” said Li Datong, a liberal commentator. “But the opening up of information and greater social development have made people more aware about the country. And they care more about their health than before.”
There is no sign that hubris will be followed by nemesis. Some scandals even seem to elevate the regard for central leaders like Mr Wen, who can use media controls to focus criticism on the local criminals responsible, rather than the political systems that let them get away with it.
But more and more people are noticing the central contradiction of a ruling Communist Party that says that it is modern and reforming, but shuts off the means of holding it to account. It has not gone unremarked that the boss of Sanlu, now sacked and in police custody, was a senior party official, as are the leaders of most big companies in China.
Whatever the political fall-out, it will be too late for Jiao Zizhou. China can lay on the Olympics but it cannot afford healthcare for its people, and Zizhou’s parents could not meet the bills the new hospital charged.
They took him home, and on September 3, a few days before the information that might have saved him was made public, he died.