China ignored early warnings on milk
BEIJING - The note posted in July on the website of China's food safety inspection agency came from a doctor: reporting a sudden rise in infants turning up at his hospital with kidney stones after drinking the same brand of formula.
The warning, which urged an investigation, went unheeded. In the two weeks since China began piecemeal reporting about contamination of the milk supply, a picture has emerged of official indifference, greed, and government dysfunction.
Among the startling details: The practice of adulterating milk was widely known in the industry, and one dairy knew since late last year that its formula was sickening children.
Tens of thousands of children have sought medical care, nearly 13,000 have been hospitalized and four infants have died.
In the past two weeks, Beijing has recalled a broad array of milk products - all tainted by the industrial chemical melamine - and arrested several suppliers and the chairwoman of Sanlu Group Co., the company at the center of the scandal. It has dismissed officials and offered free medical care to the afflicted. "Nothing like this will ever happen again," Premier Wen Jiabao pledged.
But questions remain about why food and health inspectors ignored growing signs of trouble in the milk supply and when the communist leadership knew about it. Galling to many Chinese is the suspicion that pressures for a successful Beijing Olympics added momentum for a cover-up.
"The dairy products for the Olympic Games were safe. I think the inspection agency already knew about it, and they tried to protect the 'national brand,' " said Zhou Ze, a law professor at China Youth University For Political Science.
Regaining the confidence of the Chinese public and the world is likely to be difficult.
Governments heavily courted by Beijing have sounded the alarm: Normally pro-China Singapore has banned the import of Chinese dairy products, from yogurt to candy. At least nine other countries have done the same, and several nations, from Canada to Australia, have increased their testing of Chinese food imports. The European Union ordered customs inspectors to be on alert for products such as bread or chocolate to ensure they contain no contaminated milk.
In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration expanded its sampling of imports from Asia to include dairy-based candies and desserts. Over the weekend, the agency said it had started checking imports of bulk food ingredients, including milk powder, whey, and some milk-derived proteins. No tainted products from China have turned up.