Photo: Chris Devers (flickr)
Punishing Food Offenders
Less than three years after a contaminated milk scandal shook the nation, Chinese officials have recently detained 96 people on suspicion of selling milk powder tainted with the toxin melamine.
Of the 96 detained people, 2 were sentenced to life in prison, 17 were convicted on criminal charges, and 77 are awaiting trial or investigation.
This crack down comes just one week after China increased the safety requirements for all Chinese dairy companies. Under the new measure every dairy company must apply to the government to renew their license to produce milk, which officials from the Chinese General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection, and Quarantine say will improve the safety and quality of the dairy industry.
Taking Food Safety Seriously
The recent investigations are congruent with a warning released by the Chinese Public Security Bureau in September of 2010, which imposes the death sentence for serious food safety violations.
The measure particularly targets food producers as well as government officials who routinely ignore food safety offenses in return for bribes.
Until the recent dairy requirements, the Public Security Bureau’s statement did not enact new legislation but did suggest that courts should consistently declare harsher punishments for food safety offenders. The recent 96 arrests are a sign that officials are taking this proclamation seriously.
The inspections, re-licensing, and arrests are an attempt by the Chinese government to restore confidence in the Chinese food production industry and remove the melamine that is still present in some Chinese milk products.
Suspicions about the industry linger, especially among Chinese parents who remember the 2008 scandal where milk powder tainted with melamine killed six children and sickened nearly 300,000 others.
What Is Melamine?
Melamine is an industrial chemical used to make plastics. Because melamine reveals the same nitrogen levels as protein under testing, individuals at China’s largest milk powder company, Sanlu, deliberately added melamine to powdered milk so that it showed an artificially higher protein content.
Eventually the New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark forced a recall on milk products from the Sanlu Group, which brought the scandal to international attention. A milk farmer and a milk salesman were executed in connection to the toxic milk powder and others involved, including the head of Sanlu, were given sentences of life in prison.
An article from The Times released during the 2008 melamine poisonings noted that this scandal and other Chinese food safety issues have a distinctive tone:
The children are victims of two of China’s greatest evils: greed and secrecy. Greed has contributed to poor safety: only a few years ago 13 babies died after they were fed a substandard fake formula marketed under the Sanlu brand. The determination to stage a perfect Olympic Games may also have delayed revelation of the adulterated milk powder. Twenty-one topics were banned from Chinese media during the Olympics – eighth on the list was food safety scandals.