10/10/2008, 00.00
CHINA
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Beijing sets new melamine limits in milk, helps dairy farmers

China’s Health Ministry says the chemical substance can seep through packaging. Government fails to enforce its controls. Dairy industry will get 300 million yuan in aid.
Rome (AsiaNews) – Forced by the worldwide melamine-tainted milk scandal China’s state council (cabinet) has approved a series of quality control regulations for dairy products. The regulations tighten control over how milk-yielding animals are bred, how raw milk is purchased and how production and sales of dairy food are conducted.

Under the new rules, published by Xinhua, health authorities under the state council will now be responsible for setting up national safety standards for dairy foods which will limit pathogenic animalcule, pesticide residue, veterinary drug residue and other hazardous substances in dairy products.

A maximum of one milligram of melamine per kilogram of infant formula was the new limit, said Wang Xuening, deputy director of the ministry's Health Supervision Bureau. Before a maximum 2.5 milligrams per kilogram was allowed for liquid milk, milk powder and food products containing at least 15 per cent milk.

When asked why China allowed any melamine at all dairy products, Wang said it was impossible to have “zero levels” since the chemical can seep into food from its packaging.

The new limit is below that of the European Union whose reference value or tolerable daily intake (TDI) is 0.50 mg per kilogram of body weight per day. In the United States it is 0.63.

What still remains to be determined is why fresh milk and baby formulas in China had melamine levels of 2,500 mg per kilo.

According to Dr Francesco Vernazza, of the  European Food Security Authority (EFSA), melamine can be deliberately mixed with milk to increase its nitrogen content and give the impression that it is of higher quality, richer in protein, and can thus be sold at a higher price.

The effects of melamine on health were studied in the European Union back in 1986, Dr Vernazza said. In the human body it attacks kidneys right away and combined with other substances it can quickly, even in three days, produce kidney stones and even tumours. This explains why in China infants and children got ill in a short period of time, killing four and making sick more than 54,000.

So far 28 people have been arrested in connection to the scandal, but the government should assume its own responsibilities in the affair, in particular the Health Ministry and its General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, which for years did not examine powdered milk for toxicity. For many Chinese newspapers and blogs milk producers’ greed was abetted by easily corruptible public officials.

Under the weight of the scandal the dairy industry is now in crisis. The Finance Ministry has decided to hand out 300 million yuan (almost US$ 44 million) to help dairy farmers weather the crisis. Aid is expected to go to those of the hardest hit provinces: Inner Mongolia, Hebei, Liaoning, Shanxi, Shandong and Henan. Such help comes on top what local authorities are already handing out.

But some farmers said that they should have gotten a 100 yuan monthly government subsidy per cow last month to prevent them from butchering their animals now that they have little value for their milk, but have not so far seen any. The central government aid is also likely to arrive late.

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