China is once again rocked by a baby milk formula scandal. Four babies have died and at least six thousand are suffering from kidney stones, which has led to acute kidney failure in many of the sick children. Originally, only the San Lu brand was thought to be contaminated, but it has since transpired that twenty other brands have been tested positive for melamine. The World Health Organisation has called on the Chinese authorities to explain how the scandal was allowed to develop.
Baby milk inspection in ChinaAnd while hospital waiting rooms across China are filling up with worried parents and babies with kidney stones, TV commercials promoting baby formula are still on air:
"This is a TV commercial for formula. A special ingredient makes this formula easier to digest - specially designed for your baby's delicate digestive system. Nestle Grow Formula Number 3 - for babies growing the healthy way."
The text for this commercial typifies the kind of claims made by the marketers - they emphasise the special quality attributed to their brand. Aggressive advertising campaigns like this have led to a sharp decrease in the number of women breast-feeding their babies.
And now the magic formula has been found to contain melamine, a chemical used in the manufacture of durable household products like plastic dinnerware and cutlery. Suppliers - be it the farmers or the dairies - are suspected of diluting milk to cut costs, then adding melamine to make it appear higher in protein. More protein means more money.
It also means more babies - thousands of them - with kidney stones. John Foreman, an American paediatrician and kidney specialist:
"We know that melamine can form stones, and presumably that's what's happening to those children. They are getting stones in their kidneys and that's blocking the flow of urine, which is backing up in the kidneys and causing them not to function properly."
The San Lu Group knew that melamine was being added to formula for three years, but opted to remain silent. Local authorities also chose not to investigate the affair, for fear of bad press just when the spotlight was on Beijing for the Olympic Games.
The Chinese media released the information about the contaminated San Lu milk on 11 September. On 16 September, it was revealed that 21 other brands had the same problem, including Olympic Games sponsor Yili.
Now the public has little or no confidence in any of the popular dairy products. In a supermarket at the Workers' Stadium, an old woman is looking up and down the shelves:
"I wouldn't dare buy [Yili] anymore. Only foreign milk; that should be alright."
Imported milk is three times more expensive, but many are prepared to pay to be safe. On an internet forum for mothers, 94 percent of those questioned have said that they will not use Chinese brands. And now, not even regular milk is an alternative. On Friday, it was announced that liquid milk from three of China's largest dairies was tainted with melamine.
The current milk crisis is the last in a series of food scandals in China. Eggs, steamed sandwiches, animal feed and prawns have all featured in the string of health scares. Three years ago, 13 babies died in the Anhui province as a result of malnutrition. They had been fed a kind of fake formula containing no nutrition.
Indeed we need to reach far beyond the actual consumers of baby milks. This is a case of Globalised Contamination.
The hue and cry around the Sanlu baby milk tragedy in China is focusing very narrowly on the quality of the milk produced by one Chinese company. This detracts from the fact that formula feeding regardless of brand and origin has inherent risks. What is also being overlooked is the large number of babies dependent on formula feeding at an age when breastfeeding should be the norm. The fact that aggressive marketing may be one key factor that is tilting the balance against breastfeeding
is also not being addressed.
China has had regulations that implement the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes since 1995. The regulations are incomplete and have regrettably never been fully implemented or enforced despite ICDC's past and recent efforts. Maybe this latest episode of babies dying and suffering as a result of formula feeding will get the Chinese authorities to sit up and give breastfeeding the support it deserves. They must act to protect their children. It is the least they can do. There will doubtlessly be more muck-ups with milks but the harm will be
minimised if breastfeeding is made popular and routine.
Until that time, foreign companies selling formula in China will be gloating over increased sales.
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