Friday, October 24, 2008

Chinese junk: It's cheap, it's lethal

Made in China? Just steer clear
Coffee Break / Kanchan Gupta
Great and mighty China, whose economic clout and runaway growth are the cause of much envy, if not fear, around the world, has been found to be feeding its newborn babies contaminated milk and dairy produce. No, this is not about accidental contamination on account of machine malfunction or human error, which could happen in any country, including those who flaunt foolproof quality checks and absolute health standards in the developed West. Nor is it about a dozen babies falling ill with a tummy ache. It's about tens of thousands of infants -- more than 50,000 according to Chinese Health Ministry officials who are known for being extremely economical with the truth -- suffering from renal failure and acute distress after consuming 'baby food', or 'infant formula', manufactured by the dairy firm, Sanlu Group Co, China's biggest producer of powdered milk. As it now transpires, the company used milk spiked with melamine, an industrial chemcal used for manufacturing plastics and fertilisers, for its dairy products, including baby food. Apparently, melamine was used to "make the milk seem higher in protein".The first case of melamine poisoning was reported as early as March and tests confirmed the contamination in early-August, but neither the company nor the health department bothered to alert the people or notify importers of Chinese dairy products. Beijing was busy suppressing the revolt in Tibet and organising the Olympics; it stands to reason that the scandal should have been brushed under the carpet in an effort to prove that everything about China is as impressive as the spectacular Games it hosted. In the event, China is now left battling a spectacular scandal whose victims are Chinese citizens. As for the health impact of tainted Chinese dairy products in countries which imported them, including India, we will get to know of it in the coming days. It is possible that doctors have failed to connect kidney problems among infants in these countries with melamine-spiked Chinese milk. In fact, Sanlu Group Co would not have gone public with the frightening facts had its New Zealand stakeholder not blown the whistle and the Government of New Zealand not taken up the issue with the Chinese Government. Unlike China, every country doesn't value pelf over ethics.Forced to admit that children had been fed a deadly industrial chemical on account of official indifference -- and perhaps corruption -- an official came up with a bland statement: "The serious safety accident of the Sanlu formula milk powder for infants has caused severe harm to many sickened babies and their families. We feel really sad about this." Sad? For an unpardonable crime, is that all that can be said by those who allowed criminals to go unchecked? We are not talking of a few babies, but more than 50,000 infants; officially, only two deaths have been confirmed, but only the na?ve (apart from our Communists) will believe Chinese statistics -- they are as spurious as the baby food sold in and exported from China.According to an AP report, quoting the official Chinese news agency, Xinhua, the Chinese "police have arrested two brothers, surnamed Geng, who ran a milk collection centre in Hebei province and are accused of adding melamine... They sold about three tonnes of contaminated milk a day". But this is not the first time that Chinese products have been found to be health hazards. Last year there was a huge scandal about the quality of the dye used for making children's toys (it was found to contain high levels of lead) sold under the famous brand name of Mattel. On that occasion China had claimed it was a conspiracy to defame its industry and give the country a bad name. Beijing used both financial and diplomatic clout to put a lid on the scandal. That did not help elevate the quality of 'Made in China' products. Complaints surfaced about Chinese toothpaste, tires and medicine -- the products were found to be either shoddy or contaminated, if not both. While China would rather forget it, this is not the first time that milk-based baby food has been found to be severely and wilfully contaminated. A similar scandal with ghastly consequences was reported in 2004.Revelations have invariably come from unofficial sources. For instance, Chinese activist Zhou Qing, author of the book What Kind of God, has spun what Newsweek has described as "one hair-raising tale after another. There's seafood laced with additives that lower men's sperm counts, soy sauce bulked up with arsenic-tainted human hair swept up from the barbershop floor, and hormone-infused fast food that prompts six-year-old boys to sprout facial hair and seven-year-old girls to grow breasts". According to Newsweek, "While the export scandals are new, Chinese consumers have had it so bad for so long that their casualty count is staggering. Bogus antibiotics produced in Anhui were blamed for six deaths and 80 people falling ill in 2006. In 2004, unsafe infant formula killed at least 50 babies and left another 200 severely malnourished. Virtually every product category is affected, from candy that has choked children to killer fireworks to toxic face cream. At least 300 million Chinese citizens -- roughly the same number as the entire US population -- suffer from food-borne diseases annually, according to a recent report by the Asian Development Bank and World Health Organisation."China would love to dismiss this as American propaganda, but the facts outweigh Beijing's defence of the indefensible. If there is any satisfaction to be drawn -- cold comfort, really -- it is in China's refusal to distinguish between domestic and foreign consumers of its products: It equally cheats both. It can be argued that for the price we pay for Chinese products, which are invariably less expensive than domestic produce, we cannot expect, much less demand, quality goods. There is a lesson in this for all those who admire China's ability to churn out anything and everything at a fraction of the price of goods manufactured elsewhere. Cheap labour and mass production are not the only reasons why China can hold the price line and run competitors out of the market. As the tainted milk scandal shows, it takes more than cheap labour and mass production to keep prices low. The next time you spice up your chowmein with 'Made in China' soya sauce, please remember you could be consuming liquefied human hair with a dash of synthetic essence of soya. And do spare a thought about your child before buying a 'Made in China' toy.

AGENDA Sunday Pioneer, September 28, 2008

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