by Marion Nestle
Nov 24 2009

The news from China: two executions

Remember last year’s scandal about the 300,000 Chinese infants who developed kidney disease after being fed infant formula laced with melamine?  That anyone would put melamine into infant formula was shocking on its own (although the previous year’s scandal over melamine in pet food ought to have been fair warning, as I explained in my book, Pet Food Politics).

Even more shocking is that the Sanlu infant formula company knew about problems with its milk long before it issued a recall, in part because it did not want to embarrass the country just prior to the start of the Olympic games in Beijing.

Now, Chinese authorities have executed two men deemed responsible for adding melamine to the milk powder sold to Sanlu.  The Sanlu manager was given a life jail sentence, and 18 others involved with the Sanlu company also have been jailed for up to 15 years.

One can always debate whether the punishment fits the crime but a BBC press account quotes a lawyer who laid the blame on

an inadequate regulatory system…It’s hard to understand why these people are give such harsh punishment because generally speaking… there is a lack of monitoring and regulation…It’s the food supervision and inspection authorities that are responsible for this.

Congress, take notice: pass that food safety bill now!

  • Subvert

    I think we should ask ourselves not for more regulatory focus, but an overall food policy that makes sense. What will be the next melamine? Who will be the next to skimp or cut corners to make ever diminishing margins on their goods as they are squeezed by the forces of the global market and the Wal-Mart’s of the world. It is one thing to buy cheap toys and other junk that lines department store shelves, but it is sad to see us getting so much food from China and other countries for the sake of cheaper, lower prices. When a country cannot be secure in its own food supply, I believe there are bigger issues than more our having bureaucratic regulatory focus.

  • Erin O.

    How did the melamine get in the formula? Did the workers pour it in there to be malicious? Were they adding it for another reason? I never heard that part of the story.
    Execution is extreme, but I like how China takes these things seriously. In the US we have voluntary recalls and the blame just gets passed around.

  • Subvert

    They were adulterating products and ingredients with melamine to boost apparent protein levels (the melamine boosts Nitrogen, which in test results makes the end product appear to have more protein). Use less protein, add junk filler (melamine) to bring you apparent protein level up. The reason that this is so scary is that we import tons of industrial food ingredients for manufacture of food products domestically, if we are not directly importing the end product from outside of the US. And the fact that a fraction of these goods get tested is not very settling either.

  • Maybe execution is harsh, but if you think about it from a different perspective, maybe it’s not. We blame lack of product safety on inadequate regulation, but the fact is some person or people made a decision to do something shady for profits. Why not blame the blame squarely on a human being who made a shady choice, rather than an ambiguous “system” that didn’t create enough rules and regulations? I don’t pretend to have the answers, but I do think it’s important to remember that behind every dangerous product is a person who chose to create it that way for money.

  • Subvert

    Absolutely. This is why having a global system of food sourcing is so scary. Not to say that there aren’t people domestically trying to dupe us, but just saying, as you increase the cast of the net, the more likely you are to catch crap and byproduct.

  • sm

    this is why i no longer eat anything in a box….stick with the local farmer’s market, buy fresh, and breastfeed….avoid all food in a package. I make my own packages to freeze for quick meals. this is the only way you can be sure you know what you are actually eating.

  • Sheila

    I agree that regulation might be helpful. However, I also belive that personal responsibility has always been there, and obviously ignored by the people who laced the formula with melamine. It is simply wrong to add the melamine to infant formula, they should not need a regulation to tell them this or an agency to look over their shoulder…they know right from wrong, they just ignored it in their quest for greed.

  • Johannes G

    Marion, I’m usually spot on with you about a lot of things you talk about, but your final comment truly irritates me. I completely agree with subvert – we don’t need more regulatory policy, we need a food policy that makes sense. Other comments show praise for farmers’ markets, but how will small farmers be able to sell to farmers markets if they have to get their produce inspected first? Granted, I’m not 100% up-to-date on the specifics of this bill, but from the buzz I’ve heard around it, it seems that the bill is aiming to basically turn the rest of the food situation into the meat situation in this country – foods “inspected” by the FSIS. Basically, we are industrializing food even more than it currently is, and reducing transparency from farm to plate even more than it currently is. True food security is knowing where and who your food came from, and how it’s been produced, using what ingredients. In the current food system, this is far from true. This piece of legislation will simply make it even more difficult for small farmers to actually provide real food to people who care about what they put into their mouths while making the population at large even more complacent about the situation of food in this nation.

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