First pet food, now infant formula?

Chinese authorities are scrambling to deal with contaminated milk powder that's making thousands of babies sick.

Published September 18, 2008 4:48PM (EDT)

In the latest food safety scandal from China, at least three infants have died and more than 6,200 have gotten sick from dairy products tainted with melamine, the same chemical that was found in contaminated pet food that killed thousands of pets in 2007. According to the Washington Post, milk powder from at least 22 dairy companies -- that is, one-fifth of China's producers -- contained melamine, which is used in making plastics and tanning leather.

So what the hell was it doing in food?

It turns out, unfortunately, that this "contamination" was probably deliberate: On nutritional tests, melamine makes foods appear to have more protein. And since China's two-tiered regulatory system gives what amounts to a free pass to companies (mostly state-run) that have "proven themselves" in the past, it's easy for little things like melamine to slip through the cracks. (The Washington Post found that at least nine of the 22 companies involved so far in this scandal were exempt from government inspections for their milk or dairy products.)

Since the scandal broke, China has announced that it is changing its food inspection rules so that all companies will supposedly be subject to inspection and has recalled dairy products from around the world (its milk powder is banned in the United States) -- no doubt terrified of the public outrage that would ensue if tainted baby food killed as many children as the pet food did pets.

The image of infants suffering with kidney stones (or, worse, dying) from contaminated milk is upsetting enough, but according to this accompanying editorial, its effects could be even worse because in recent years, an increasing number of Chinese women have been abandoning breast-feeding in favor of formula.

To quote:

According to the All-China Women's Federation, only 47 percent of Chinese women breastfeed and most specialists think that the numbers are actually lower. One study noted that breastfeeding rates around Beijing were as low as 13.6 percent at four months in the 1990s down from more than 80 percent in early 1950s.

It's hard to see anything good in a repeat, with humans, of a contamination scandal that was avoidable to begin with. But perhaps one unintended effect will be that some Chinese women, scared off of formula, will go back to feeding their babies from a more local source.

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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