10/17/2008, 00.00
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Melamine-tainted milk a “good thing”

Company officials say scandal enabled them to “improve the quality” of their products. Judges reject lawsuits for damages filed by parents with children now suffering from kidney problems. In Japan melamine-laced egg powder is found.
Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Bans and prohibitions are still being imposed on melamine-tainted milk abroad but back in China things are getting back to “normal”.

Leading companies like Yili and Mengniu, which produced melamine-laced fresh milk and powder, said they would now buy milk only from supervised producers with surveillance cameras installed to monitor the collection process. Indeed “this scandal has helped improve the quality standards of China's dairy industry,” Yili Vice-President Zhang Jianqiu said.

Dairy producers claim they were unaware of the presence of melamine, blaming instead milk producers.

Courts in Henan for their part have turned down lawsuits filed by parents of children whose children have developed melamine-induced kidney problems.

A court in Lanzhou, Gansu province, said it cannot accept a lawsuit over the Sanlu infant formula scandal until it knows whether authorities have issued guidelines on how to deal with the sensitive topic.

The parents of six-month-old Yi Kaixuan, who died of kidney failure, filed a 1 million yuan (US$ 135,000), little by Western standards. They blame the child’s death on the Sanlu milk powder he consumed. But many experts doubt that their suit will be ever admitted.

In order to promote rapid economic growth the government has tended to protect companies by various means; conversely, consumers have had few chances to file for damages even though it is possible under Chinese law.

So far melamine-tainted milk has caused four deaths and made ill more than 53,000 infants. Few parents have asked for justice however.

More than a hundred lawyers have offered their services, but local bar associations are government-controlled and have been advised against involvement. At least 20 have dropped out.

“This is a product liability case that in a Western country would turn into a class-action lawsuit,” said Zhang Xinbao, a law professor at People's University of China. In China, he noted, “they don't want to see so many people getting involved in one lawsuit. This might threaten social stability.”

In the face of court inaction parents and families can still petition the government. By and large the latter has urged them to accept out-of-court settlements, partly out of a desire to keep conceal embarrassing information about collusion between dairy companies and local authorities. Such information might show how regulations were not enforced and how local governments tried to cover up the scandal and eventually delay it the release of pertinent information.

“A public health crisis like this not only involves Sanlu. It involves many officials [. . .] in the city of Shijiazhuang (where the company is headquartered), said Teng Biao, a lawyer in Beijing. “It involves media censorship, the food quality regulatory system and the corrupt deal between commercial merchants and corrupt officials. [. . .] To protect Sanlu is to protect the government itself.”

Authorities yesterday announced that 5,824 children were still receiving hospital treatment for kidney diseases.

The popular White Rabbit candy is back on Chinese store shelves but it remains banned elsewhere because of melamine.

Japan's Mitsui & Company said late on Thursday that the company recalled 20 tonnes of mainland egg powder after detecting a small amount of melamine in it.

Egg powder is often used to flavour pastries, cooked pasta and confectionery products.

In Naples (Italy) a tonne of Chinese made powdered milk brought illegally into the country was seized. Italy’s Agriculture Minister Luca Zaia said that it might be “melamine milk.”

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See also
Beijing pulls all pre-14 September dairy products off the shelves
53 thousand Chinese babies ill due to melamine milk
Melamine-tainted milk: more deaths and sick than official data show
Melamine in Nestle milk made in China
New melamine alarm, Beijing launches national emergency


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