Antibiotic Controversy Stirs China's Dairy Industry

By Xie Liangbin, Zhu Xiyan, He Wen
Published: 2009-05-25

Nation, Page 12, Issue 419, May 18 2009
Original article: [Chinese]

The Chinese Health Ministry has recently launched a crackdown on the production and sale of "antibiotic-free milk", labeling the product as misleading consumers.

The Ministry has given an ultimatum date of June 30 for dairy producers to remove from their packaging the advertising tag-line of "antibiotic-free", a term claiming the product is not milked from sick cows under antibiotic treatment, thus contains no residue of the drug. 

"If one drinks antibiotic-laced milk for a long period of time, his or her system will build up resistance against future prescription of the drug, and this could become problematic when one truly needed antibiotic treatment," said a senior management personnel from a dairy firm.

With the crackdown gathered pace, the public suddenly learned of a new terminology called β-lactamase, or commonly known as "antibiotic-destroyer" - an illegal food additive that could neutralize antibiotic residues in raw milk. 

"In fact, β-lactamase is the real target of the crackdown," industry players told the Economic Observer.

Marketing Hype
The concept of "antibiotic-free milk" was first brought forth in 2002 by Shanghai Bright Dairy, which drew flaks from fellow industry players.

Back then, China Dairy Industry Association protested against the use of such term as marketing hype, and justified that antibiotic-laced milk products in the market were within permissible level, posing no health concerns.

An association board member explained that if a sick cow was being treated with the drug, in the following seven days, milk produced by the cow would contain antibiotic residues. In addition, some dairy farmers and milk collection center operators would at times add the drug into raw milk to kill off bacteria.

A spot-check by the Chinese authorities in the first half of 2006 revealed that some 50% of the milk products on shelves across the country contained excessive antibiotic residues.

Following that, the officials supported Shanghai Bright Dairy's call for producing "antibiotic-free milk", resulted in more and more industry players joining the club subsequently.

However, it was the hype of achieving "antibiotic-free" target in milk production that later led to the illegal use of β-lactamase (antibiotic-destroyer).

Antibiotic-destroyer is used to hydrolyze antibiotic residues in raw milk, it is claimed that this product could reduce antibiotic residues to undetectable levels even when cattle are milked right after receiving antibiotic treatment.

But the substance is not a legal food additive. It is not known whether this additive eliminates the allergenic components of antibiotics, and its overall safety for human consumption has not been fully evaluated.

An industry player claimed that if without the "antibiotic destroyer",  some 80% of the domestic dairy firms would face difficulties in producing "antibiotic-free milk".

Regulatory Loopholes
While the promotion of "antibiotic-free milk" thrives, the "antibiotic-laced milk" continues to exist in the Chinese market. One reason for such co-existence could be attributed to a lack of clear guidelines.

Chen Yu, analyst of Beijing Orient Agribusiness Consultant Company, said there was no rule compelling dairy firms to produce milk that was totally free of antibiotic residue.

In other words, self-discipline and market competition have been the main driving forces for dairy producers to churn out "antibiotic-free milk".

As a result, some dairy farmers and raw milk collection center operators have resorted to adding "antibiotic destroyer" to "purify" raw milk in order to fetch higher prices.

China Dairy Industry Association board member Wang Dingming told the EO that the price offered for antibiotic-free raw milk ranged between 2,000 and 2,500 yuan per ton, double or triple the amount offered for antibiotic-laced milk, which could usually fetched about 800 to 1,200 yuan per ton. 

Whereas it took only one 6-milliliter tube of "antibiotic destroyer", costing 10 yuan each, to turn one ton of raw milk "antibiotic-free" in a few hours, the EO learned. 

As of now, there's no clear answer as to the side-effect of consuming milk tainted by "antibiotic-destroyer", and the uncertainties cause added anxieties.

With the melamine milk scare still fresh on the public's memory, the Chinese dairy industry is in need of an antibiotic jab to boost its fragile reputation.  

To overcome the latest controversy, industry observers suggested that China to enact regulations to strictly prohibit the production and sale of "antibiotic-laced milk" instead, in line with the standard subscribed in the US and Europe. 

                                                                 Translated by Liu Peng