Who is Responsible for the Tainted Milk?

By Wen Zhou
Published: 2008-09-18

Of China's 100 dairy product makers, 22 were found to have produced infant milk powder laced with poisonous melamime during spot-checks by quality control watchdog - State Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (SAQSIQ).

In other words, over 20% of the domestic dairy industry players have quality problems. What has initially started off as an isolated case of "tainted milk powder", which has killed three infants todate, has now escalated into a scandal engulfing the entire industry.

At this juncture, we could not help but to ask: Who is responsible?

In the beginning, Shijiazhuang-based Sanlu Dairy Group was solely blamed when babies were found to have developed kidney stones upon consuming the milk powder it produced. And the parties concerned shifted the blame to certain farmers for supplying tainted raw milk.

Later, high-ranking officials in Shijiazhuang, including the vice-mayor in charge of its agricultural portfolio and the heads of local quality control bureau, were sacked for "leadership responsibilities".

Now that with the latest spot-check results out, it is clear that the tainted milk powder issue is not merely the work of a few law-breaking individuals, and it cannot be solved simply by removing a few officials under the reasoning of "leadership responsibilities".

The food industry can directly affect the life and death of people, thus it is critical to take prevention measures rather than hammering on damage control.

From the outcome of SAQSIQ's latest spot checks, milk tainted with melamine is not an isolated case, and we can rest assure that the practice has dated way back.

An industry with so many of its players having used toxic substance in their production, yet there appears to be no prior alarm sounded by regulators and no prevention measures.

The consequences are severe - several thousand babies sick, a few even dead, and the number of casualties may rise. The quality control watchdog, SAQSIQ, cannot escape unscathed in rounding up "who is responsible".

The root of the problem is man-made, and a disaster systematically executed in the dairy industry. The SAQSIQ has waited until the Sanlu scandal erupted to conduct a nationwide spot checks on milk products, and only then the 22 problematic companies were identified.

Why did SAQSIQ only act after tragedy took place? Is our quality supervision system reliable and effective? The government has in recent years invested staggering sums of money in strengthening quality control systems, but where have the tax-payers' money gone to? Why does the supervision network seem defenseless in the face of disaster?

During the press conference held on September 17, journalists asked why the authority hadn't discovered melamine before, and SAQSIQ's spokeperson replied: "According to both the state's inspection standards and the internationally recognized Codex Alimentarius, there is no related regulation required the testing for this toxic chemical substance, as the substance is prohibited from being added into food products in the first place. Hence, we have not tested if milk products contained melamine before this."

We think such an explanation is not convincing enough.

For food products, safety comes first, and nutritional value second.

Everyone knows that toxic substance should not be added to food. And it is the job and foremost priority of the SAQSIQ in making sure of that. It should not wash its hands by simply stating "no related regulations...".

We also noticed that among the 22 companies identified, many were awarded the title of "Chinese Top Brand" and the certificate of "State Exemption from Quality Inspection (SEQI)", these have helped the companies to gain widespread public trust and confidence.

The SAQSIQ has been an advocate and participated in the "top brand" assessment and SEQI issuance. The public has the right to know how these problematic companies obtained such awards. Was there any negligence on the part of SAQSIQ?

Such government-endorsed awards have influenced consumers' choice. Though we may criticize respective companies for disregarding the state awarded titles, but are they the only one responsible?

The investigation is still ongoing, and the full extent of the dairy industry's toxic chain has yet to be revelaed. Even the first "isolated case" related to Sanlu Group remains fuzzy - when exactly were the authorities alerted, and was there an intentional cover-up?

We want to know: Is the SAQSIQ has prepared to take on full responsibility, and in what way it can prove itself to be a responsible supervisor?

Catching the culprits is essential, but that aside, we believe the public should question the supervising body, so to put pressure on the government to improve the quality control machenism, thus preventing the recurrance of history in the long run.

Translated by Liu Peng