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 Whistleblowers Need Protection


China's Reputation On Product Safety Reaches a New Low

By Blaine Harden, Washington Post
October 07, 2008

TOKYO, Oct. 6 -- Thanks to tainted milk, China's product-safety reputation is plumbing new depths.

Even Burma -- where one of the world's most repressive and isolated military governments relies on trade with China -- has now warned its people to steer clear of all Chinese dairy products.

The generals who run Burma, owing to a bloody military assault last year on Buddhist monks and democracy protesters, are sealed off from much of the world by economic sanctions. They increasingly depend on China for everything from military hardware to consumer goods.

Still, the Burmese government has publicized its destruction of 16 tons of Chinese baby food tainted with melamine, the industrial chemical that was mixed with milk products, leading to the deaths in China of four infants, the sickening of more than 54,000 babies and a Chinese government crackdown on 22 dairy companies.

"Authorities concerned have urged the people not to consume milk and dairy products," the state-run New Light of Myanmar reported Sunday in Rangoon, the nation's largest city. Burma is also known as Myanmar.

The anomaly of consumer protection in Burma points to the scale and severity of China's global public-relations disaster in the wake of what appears to have been a long-standing, industrial-scale scheme to adulterate infant formula and other milk products.

Dairy operators add melamine to milk products to increase their protein levels and to increase the profits they bring. The chemical often causes kidney stones when consumed by babies in infant formula.

A global backlash to the milk scandal continues to uncover melamine-tainted foods, from "Chocolate Pillows" sweets in Osaka, Japan, to a milkshake in Austria to White Rabbit Creamy Candies in West Hartford, Conn. The scandal has touched some of the world's largest food companies, as Nestle, Cadbury, Mars and Kraft Foods have recalled products or suspended sales. Imports of Chinese dairy products have been suspended from Brunei to Burundi, Cambodia to Russia.

"China is overwhelming other countries with its ability to produce things at a cheaper price," said Yoko Tomiyama, head of the Consumers Union of Japan, where paranoia about Chinese food products is now ubiquitous. "As long as this globalized consumer system prevails, there will always be the next melamine."

Over the weekend, China announced the arrest of six more people suspected of producing and selling melamine. They were detained in northern China, where the country's milk industry is based.

Trying to contain damage from the scandal, China announced Sunday that no traces of melamine were found in a large test of milk products sold across the country. Chinese newspapers reported Monday that the tests were conducted in 27 cities on more than 600 batches of milk.

It was the second time in a week that the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine has said that tests have found no contamination.

The stock price of three of China's largest dairy companies rose Monday in trading in Hong Kong and Shanghai, after government tests cleared some of their products of contamination.

Complaints by parents about sick children first surfaced last December in Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei province. Doctors there also issued warnings.

But the scandal did not become public until Sept. 11 when a journalist posted an item on a Chinese social Web site about the sick children. It mentioned Sanlu Dairy Co., a 50-year-old firm that health officials say covered up the complaints of worried parents.

Hundreds of police officers have since conducted raids on pastures, breeding farms and milk-purchasing stations in the Shijiazhuang area.

The Agriculture Ministry said over the weekend that it was trying to help dairy farmers whose businesses have been ruined by collapsing demand for milk. In a statement posted on its Web site, the ministry said: "On the one hand, we must crack down on illegal behavior, but on the other hand we must protect the interests of the dairy sector."

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