BOSTON--The discovery of a dangerous chemical in Chinese-made baby formula has raised doubts about the government's ability to protect its citizens, experts say.
At least four infants have died and over 50,000 have been sickened by a toxic additive found in Chinese milk powder and dairy products, government officials said. The totals include some 13,000 children who have been hospitalized and nearly 40,000 treated as outpatients, according to China's Health Ministry.
The tragedy that has struck so many families was first traced to a milk collection center in Hebei province, where workers added the chemical melamine to products sold by the Sanlu Group, state media reported.
Melamine, which is made from coal to produce plastics, fertilizers and glue, is the same chemical that sparked a scandal last year when it was found in Chinese ingredients for exported pet food. The additive caused kidney problems in thousands of cats and dogs overseas, prompting a massive recall.
As in the pet food case, melamine was used in milk as a cheap source of nitrogen, which is measured as an indicator of protein content, government investigators said.
The same consequences of contamination have now afflicted China's children. Last week, toxic formula was blamed for acute kidney failure in 158 infants. This week, the Health Ministry said that 104 remain seriously ill. Thousands of parents have rushed to medical centers to have their babies checked.
Although the Sanlu case was first treated as an isolated incident, investigators have since found melamine in milk products from 22 dairies and manufacturers, the official Xinhua news agency said. The companies include the Megniu Group, Bright Dairy & Food and the Yili Industrial Group. At least a dozen countries in Asia and Africa have been affected by tainted Chinese exports, the Reuters news agency said.
As the trouble has widened, the government has responded by arresting or firing some 20 workers and officials. On Sept. 22, the director of the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (GAQSIQ), Li Changjiang, resigned. Li oversaw a regulatory crackdown last year following a worldwide outcry over toxic Chinese products, from toothpaste to toys.
But the latest arrests leave basic questions unanswered. How could anyone use a substance that was unsafe for pet food in baby formula? And how could GAQSIQ fail to detect it until so many children fell ill?
In interviews with Radio Free Asia, experts cited the government's push to persuade foreign countries that food supplies would be safe for this summer's Olympic Games in Beijing. The publicity campaign may also have pressured local officials to keep silent about safety risks.
Adam Segal, senior fellow for China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said it is now unclear if Chinese officials have made any real gains in food safety over the past year or whether they have simply been blocking bad news out.
"Foreigners were reporting this before the Olympics, and they were either sweeping it under the rug or ignoring it," Segal said. "They had made it clear that they wanted no news of any kind that could distract from the Olympics."
At a press conference last week, a senior Health Ministry official said Sanlu had received complaints about their products in March. The company's own tests in August found traces of melamine, the ministry's Gao Qiang said, according to Xinhua. This week, State Council investigators said Sanlu knew about the problems as far back as last December but kept silent for months.
The Fonterra Cooperative Group of New Zealand, which owns 43 percent of Sanlu, had urged a recall of the formula on Aug. 2, but no action was taken until Sept. 10 after Xinhua reported that 14 infants had developed kidney stones in western Gansu Province.
New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark said her government contacted Beijing on Sept. 8 after local Chinese officials refused to act, the BBC reported.
Aside from the slow response, poor regulation seems to have played a major part in the adulteration of products. Before he resigned, Li of GAQSIQ told Xinhua that the agency never required tests for melamine "because it is not allowed in food."
But Chen Junshi, a senior researcher at the National Institute for Nutrition and Food Safety, said the use of melamine "has been a common practice" in the dairy industry, China Daily reported. Milk stations have been adding melamine to watered-down products since at least April 2005, said Hebei's deputy governor, Yang Chongyong, according to Bloomberg News.
Lowell Dittmer, a political science professor at the University of California Berkeley campus, said the consequences may be serious for China's government. In earlier cases, Beijing tried to paint foreign complaints about contamination in exports as attacks on China's reputation, he said.
"Now it turns up in China's own products in a very, very serious way," Dittmer told RFA. "The Chinese are bound to have much more suspicion about the adequacy of government regulation of their own consumer products, so it's a very serious issue."
This is not the first safety scandal involving infant formula in China. In 2004, 13 babies in Anhui province died after feeding on mislabeled milk products that contained no nutritional value. That case may make the lack of testing for melamine appear even more negligent.
Oded Shenkar, management professor at Ohio State University's Fisher College of Business, said the central government may be trying harder to crack down on such unconscionable crimes, but economic pressures to commit them have been on the rise.
Climbing costs and competition may be factors in the temptation to adulterate products, Shenkar said in an interview.
"There is relentless pressure now to contain costs," he said. "You have unfettered competition and growing price pressures, and therefore the pressure to cut corners is always there, and you cut corners by using ingredients you're not supposed to."
Segal said that central government efforts keep breaking down at the local level, where much of the corruption is taking place. But public anger may turn on the government over cases that threaten children.
Beijing argues that "it's trying to protect the people, but it's corrupt local officials that are the ones that are poisoning the Chinese people," said Segal.
"It seems that someday the Chinese people would wake up and say that argument really doesn't seem to be working for us any longer. But at this point, it still seems to work," he said.