Pending a nationwide investigation Sanlu has shut down production, recalling at least 8,000 tonnes of its baby formula after it admitted that it contained melamine, a substance used in plastics and fertilisers but which can cause kidney stones. Often milk is diluted with water to increase its volume, and with melamine, which mimics protein, to boost the apparent protein content.
The Fonterra Co-operative Group, a leading New Zealand-based dairy company, holds a 43 per cent stake in Sanlu. New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark said on Monday that “they [Fonterra] have been trying for weeks to get official recall and the local authorities in China would not do it. I think the first inclination was to try and put a towel over it and deal with it without an official recall.”
In fact customer complaints have been reaching Sanlu since last March at least and Chinese authorities had known about the problem for months. But only when the press began reporting on 10 September that babies were getting sick did the company recall the product made before 6 August.
Speaking yesterday in Singapore Fonterra chief executive Andrew Ferrier said that he got wind of the problem in August and that Sanlu started its own recall from suppliers on 2 August. He tried to get Chinese government officials to deal with the problem during the Olympics but to no avail.
Still Ferrier defended Fonterra's decision not to go public earlier about what he called a “huge tragedy,” saying that it “would have been irresponsible without all the facts to just go public.”
Meanwhile hundreds of angry parents haw swarmed Sanlu’s headquarters in Shijiazhuang (Hebei), demanding to talk with company officials and asking for compensation.
In some hospitals matters got tense when it became evident that there were not enough beds and staff for sick children.
At the Bethune International Peace Hospital many patients are in corridors and heavy security forces had to be called in to calm angry parents.
Shijiazhuang authorities announced that free kidney function tests would be given, but it seems that the order has not reached all the hospitals. Several parents whose children are at the Bethune hospital said they had to pay for all the charges. Impatient staff told parents who kept asking whether the tests were free were told to “ask whoever announced it, not our hospital. We are not charities.”
Baby milk powder is increasingly popular in mainland, which is the product’s second biggest market in the world.
However, “China lacks the safety capacity of developed countries,” said Mao Shoulong, a public policy expert at Renmin University in Beijing.
“Until safety measures catch up with the scale of the market, we can expect problems like this for a vulnerable product such as milk powder,” he explained.
This problem is not something new. In 2004, at least 13 babies died in the eastern province of Anhui after drinking fake milk powder that had no nutrition.
Now officials have been dispatched to Hebei, Heilongjiang, Inner Mongolia and Guangdong, where most mainland dairy enterprises are located, to ensure that local quality control authorities are properly investigated. Many people are concerned though that they might be simply trying to prevent loss of confidence among consumers in the product.