Not another Chinese milk scandal

August 12, 2010

When I heard the news yesterday that hormones in milk might be behind the early sexual development of Chinese girls I feared the worst.

This was going to be a repeat of the Sanlu melamine poisoning scandal and once more Fonterra was implicated.

The company was quick to say:

Fonterra is a supplier of milk powder to Synutra International but we understand Synutra sources some milk locally and imports whey powder from Europe.

In New Zealand there are strict legislative controls on the use of Hormonal Growth Promotants (HGPs) – they are not allowed to be used on milking cows.

The strict controls mean that it is not necessary for New Zealand milk or milk products to be routinely tested.

Fonterra remains 100% confident about the quality of its products.

Thankfully our reputation for high standards of food safety mean when Fonterra says this.

Thankfully too,  Dunedin School of Medicine’s head of paediatrics Professor Barry Taylor says it’s unlikely milk powder is the cause.

“If there were three cases here in Otago I probably would not jump up and down. And certainly not if there were three cases in several many millions of people. There would be a natural number occurring, and I suspect, [if milk powder was the cause] there would be somewhat more than three,” Taylor told ONE News.

But false alarm or not, it is another reminder that the standards we adhere to in New Zealand are not those in all other countries.

Where Fonterra would almost certainly believed, the story of the cover-ups in the Sanlu scandal  show that it would be difficult to put the same level of trust in Chinese companies.

Adolf at No Minsiter says this is the reason we should prevent Chinese interests from buying up large chunks of our dairy industry.

I wouldn’t go that far but I do think it is essential that the integrity of our food production and processing is safeguarded whether it is foreign companies operating here or ours operating in other countries.

We can’t compete on price with countries like Brazil but we can compete on quality. Food safety is an important ingredient in our reputation for quality and we can not afford to have it compromised by people who don’t share our standards.


On-line reselling has dangers for buyers and producers

January 16, 2010

The Food Safety Authority is invetigating claims that Chinese people are buying large amounts of New Zealand infant  milk powder here to sell on-line in their home country.

It’s understandable that parents in China don’t trust their own milk powder in the wake of the Sanlu melamine poisoning, but buying on-line has risks too.

Producers are concerned that their product may be sold in a damaged state which may compromise the safety of the product and reflect badly on them.

Another concern is that the contents of the tins may not even be New Zealand milk powder.

Immense damage could be done to New Zealand’s reputation for safe food products if their were problems with the standard of something purporting to be our produce.

It is difficult to police internet sales and the buyer should always beware. But there is little a company can do to stop people buying their produce and selling it on-line in other countries, or using their containers to sell an inferior substitute.


Chinese govt pressures poisoned milk victims to drop law suits

March 18, 2009

Families of children who were poisoned by melamine tainted milk in China are being pressured by government officials to drop law suits seeking compensation.

Local officials were calling and visiting at least a half-dozen families, urging them to drop their cases against the dairies and accept a government-sanctioned compensation plan giving 2,000 yuan ($290) to most victims, said Zhao Lianhai, the father of a child who was sickened by the milk.

At least one family has decided to back out of their lawsuit, Zhao said Tuesday.

. . .  The accusations that local officials are trying to intimidate victim’s families come despite this month’s announcement by the executive vice president of China’s highest court, Shen Deyong, that parents who rejected the government’s compensation plan were welcome to file lawsuits against the dairies.

It was not clear why local officials would try to stop the families after Shen’s announcement. But different levels of government in China often disagree on how to handle matters, and local officials may see lawsuits as a threat to their authority with the potential to upset stability in their community.

Politics within politics was blamed for the delay in withdrawing contaminated milk from sale in the first place. The damage that did is being compounded by this attempt to stop families from seeking compensation.

Money won’t bring back a dead baby but it will help pay for care for children who have on-going health problems as a result of drinking the infant formula which was poisoned with melamine.


Who was scared?

February 21, 2009

The headline said: Second melamine scare for Fonterra so I read the story to find out who was scared.

It wasn’t Fonterra.

It wasn’t the company which supplied Fonterra.

It wasn’t food safety authorities.

And it wasn’t consumers.

So was there anything to be scared about?

No. Fonterra did the sensible thing when told there was possible contamination in the iron it used in 12 products:

Fonterra immediately stopped all production using the supplement and undertook extensive testing of the affected batches.

Nothing was found to cause concern, production resumed with iron which has been tested and found to be free of melamine.

The Minister of Food Safety, Kate Wilkinson,  has issued a media release, complete with time line and Q&A on melamine but there is nothing in any of that to indicated she was scared.

So who was scared?

Nobody and there was nothing to be scared of which has prompted Macdoctor to define a new media genre – spam journalism.


Melamine scandal gets murkier for Fonterra

January 28, 2009

Tian Wenhua the former chairwoman of Sanlu who was convicted for her part in the melamine milk poisoning scandal said she acted on advice given by a Fonterra board member.

But Fonterra’s chief executive Andrew Ferrier says the company was always clear there was no safe level of melamine in milk.

China’s state news agency, Xinhua,  . . .  said rather than stopping production of tainted products after the contamination was confirmed on August 1 last year, Sanlu decided to limit melamine levels to within 10mg for every kilogram of milk.

“Tian said during her trial that she made the decision not to halt production of the tainted products because a board member, designated by New Zealand dairy product giant Fonterra that partly owned Sanlu Group, presented her a document saying a maximum of 20mg of melamine was allowed in every kg of milk in the European Union,” Xinhua said. “She said she had trusted the document at that time.”

Mr Ferrier told the Herald a Fonterra representative had given Tian the document soon after the board was advised of the contamination on August 2.

“The context was when this whole thing broke there was an enormous amount of work going on to find out what melamine was and there was research all over the world about its contaminants, its danger,” Mr Ferrier said. “There was information pulled up from Europe, from the US, everywhere.”

. . . Mr Ferrier said: “I do want to be crystal, crystal clear – although there was lots of information that was pulled up we were vividly clear to Sanlu that the only acceptable level [of melamine] was zero.”

At no point did Fonterra tell Sanlu it was acceptable to keep producing to the melamine level in the report, he said. “Absolutely not, absolutely not.”

I believe Ferrier but it’s not me he needs to convince, it’s consumers who rely on the company’s commitment to the highest possible safety standards for its products.

Just a few months ago Fonterra was being held up as the model to which other processors of primary products should aspire. The fall in world commodity prices is  a large part of the reason this has changed and the company can’t be held responsible for that. But another reason is that it has not handled the melamine scandal well.

As Keeping Stock says:

. . . Fonterra still has a lot of questions to answer, and there’s no escaping the perception, whether merited or not, that Fonerra has been less than transparent throughout.

Fonterra has appeared to be on the backfoot throughout  the whole sorry saga and Roarprawn  is right when she says the company needs a rocket.

Paul Henry discussed the issue with Fran O’Sullivan on Breakfast yesterday and she said that the company made a fundamental mistake at the start by thinking the scandal could be isolated as a Chinese problem. She also said that journalists have been unimpressed by the slow response from the company.

A large company ought to understand the importance of not just being on top of such a potentially damaging issue but showing the world it is on top of it. Regardless of how well the Fonterra may be handling things behind the scenes its poor public relations are giving the impression it’s not handling things well at all and allowing questions over its involvement in the melamine scandal to fester.


What has Fonterra learned?

January 23, 2009

What would Fonterra have done differently before investing in China if the company could have foreseen the melamine poisoning which killed at least six babies, poisoned tens of thousands of others and has led to the chair of Sanlu, Tian Wenhua,  being sentenced to life imprisonment  and two men who supplied melamine being sentenced to death?

The answer to that hypothetical question probably doesn’t matter.

But what Fonterra has learned from the experience does matter  if the company has any thoughts of investing in China in the future.

It’s a vast country with a very large population which means there are big opportunities for investment, but the Sanlu experience shows there are also huge risks.


6 Chinese babies dead & 300,000 sickened by melamine milk

December 3, 2008

China has admitted that six babies died and 300,000  became ill after drinking milk made from powder which had been poisoned by melamine.

The scandal has been met with public dismay and anger, particularly among parents who feel the government breached their trust after their children were sickened or died from drinking infant formula authorities had certified as safe.

The Health Ministry’s revised death toll is twice the previous figure, while the new count of 294,000 babies who suffered urinary problems from drinking contaminated infant formula is a six-fold increase from the last tally in September.

“Most of the sickened children received outpatient treatment for only small amounts of sand-like kidney stones found in their urinary systems, while some patients had to be hospitalized for the illness,” the ministry said in a statement late Monday.

The latest statistics show that China’s communist leaders are slowly acknowledging the scale of China’s worst food safety scare in years. During such crises, the government often deliberately releases information piecemeal in part to keep from feeding public anger.

Thousands of parents have been clamouring for compensation for their sickened and dead children. The release of the figures raises the question of whether the Health Ministry is getting closer to finalizing a compensation scheme.

“The new figures are more realistic and objective than previous figures. We knew the previous ones could not have been accurate,” said Chang Boyang, a Beijing lawyer who has provided legal assistance to families of children who became ill.

Six deaths from such a serious and widespread problem still seems very low, although at least it is an indication that authorities are being more open about the scale of the scandal.

Morning Report said that Sanlu, one of the companies most badly affected  by the poisoning, has begun selling milk powder again and that people are accepting reassurances that it is safe.

Fonterra, which has a 40% stake in Sanlu, announced a 60 cents reduction in its forecast payout for this season, partly because of losses associated with the melamine scandal.


Anlene clean – Fonterra

October 31, 2008

Fonterra says independent tests  on its Anlene milk powder have found no traces of melamine.

Results today from the Health Sciences Authority in Singapore on samples from Bangladesh have come back negative,” said Fonterra’s director of group manufacturing, Gary Romano.

“There is no basis in fact for any speculation that Fonterra product sold under the Anlene brand is anything but the highest quality,” he said.

“We fully expect this to be confirmed by the Bangladesh government tests on our product which are expected to be released in the next few days.”

The Bangladesh Government is re-testing all major dairy brands in its market, after saying that a mix of negative and positive results from different laboratories on the same batches of infant formula had caused confusion.


Melamine fears in Bangladesh milk

October 30, 2008

Milk powder from eight companies, including Fonterra’s Anlene brand, has been seized from shops in Bangladesh after labratory tests found traces of melamine in samples.

Independent tests conducted by the Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institution and Plasma Plus had found its brands contained no traces of melamine, a Fonterra spokesman said.

But a third independent test by a Bangladesh agency found traces of melamine in all eight dairy brands.

As a result, samples of all eight brands have been sent to two further laboratories for independent testing.

“We are confident that none of our products in Bangladesh contain melamine,” said the Fonterra spokesman.

Both Fonterra and New Zealand’s Food Safety Authority have conducted a range of tests across eligible dairy products.

All had produced negative results, the company said.


Melamine in Chinese eggs

October 27, 2008

Excessive levels of melamine have been found in eggs from China for sale in Hong Kong.

It is thought the melamine comes from feed given to the hens.


Melamine-poisoned food kills 1500 dogs

October 25, 2008

Dog food poisoned by melamine has killed around 1500 dogs in China.

The raccoon dogs – a breed native to east Asia that is raised for its fur – were fed a product that contained melamine and developed kidney stones, Zhang Wenkui, a veterinary professor at Shenyang Agriculture University, said Monday. All of the dogs died on farms in just one village.

“First, we found melamine in the dogs’ feed, and second, I found that 25 per cent of the stones in the dogs’ kidneys were made up of melamine,” said Zhang, who determined that the animals died of kidney failure after performing a necropsy – an animal autopsy – on about a dozen dogs.

Tens of thousands of Chinese children have become ill and at least four have died after drinking milk contaminated by melamine.

Six people who either sold melamine or added it to the milk have been arrested.

Authorities say middlemen apparently added melamine to milk they collected from farmers to sell to large dairy companies. The suppliers are accused of watering down the milk and then adding the nitrogen-rich chemical to make the milk seem higher in protein when tested. Protein tests often simply measure nitrogen levels.

As of Wednesday, a total of 46,717 children had been treated and discharged from hospitals, the health ministry said. Milk powder contaminated with melamine has been blamed for the deaths of four infants.

There have not been any more reports of deaths, the ministry said, adding that all the deaths occurred between May to August, which was before the public knew milk products were tainted.

Macdoctor  points out that many chidlren will have permanent kidney damage because of the melamine poisoning.

That creates an enormous health burden for the future. Some of these children will eventually need kidney transplants, many will have regular kidney problems and many will require dialysis in 40 – 50 years time.


Body paint tainted by melamine

October 23, 2008

Chocolate body paint has become a casualty of the Chinese milk poisoning scandal.

A Christchurch sex shop has withdrawn a range of chocolate body paints  from China because it contained melamine.


Chinese govt accepts partial responsibility for melamine poisoning

October 19, 2008

Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, has taken the rare step of saying the government has some responsibility for the poisoned milk scandal.

The government feels “great sorrow” over the crisis which has sickened more than 50,000 children, Wen said in an interview published in this week’s Science Magazine.

“We feel that although problems occurred at the company, the government also has a responsibility,” Wen said in the Sept. 20 interview posted on the website of the magazine, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

A Chinese version of the interview in the Communist Party’s People’s Daily newspaper quoted Wen as saying the government had been especially lax in “supervision and management.”

“We will handle the incident sincerely and seriously, and draw deep lessons from it,” said Wen, who has won the admiration of ordinary Chinese citizens for his visits to the country’s poor rural areas and for rallying victims of the devastating May 12 earthquake in Sichuan province.

This is a big admission from the leader of a country which rarely admits the government makes mistakes.

But I don’t expect his contrition to extend to an acknowledgement that a lack of media freedom exacerbated the problems because the scandal was not widely publicised until long after the link between infant formula and babies becomeing ill was known.


Organised crime behind melamine milk poisoning

October 18, 2008

Ministry of Foreign Affairs briefing papers suggest organised crime was behind the melamine poisoning of milk in China.

“The Chinese milk supply has been targeted by Chinese organised crime, which has been adding as a byproduct of the chemical industry, melamine, to raw milk supplied to processing plants,” the paper said.

“The harmful impact on consumers, particularly Chinese infants who are the most at-risk group, is the most serious concern,” the paper said.

. . . San Lu which makes infant formula and in which Fonterra has a 43% stake was one of the companies chich inadvertently used poisoned milk.

The document has been released to the Weekend Herald under the Official Information Act, although large chunks of the report had been deleted.

Among the deleted sections was one on New Zealand’s “international responsibilities”, while another missing piece covered the response by Chinese authorities to Fonterra’s concerns about the milk.

However, part of the paper indicates tension between Fonterra and Chinese authorities.

“Fonterra advises that by mid-September all of the adulterated product should have been accounted for or consumed,” the paper told the Government.

“This suggests that despite the authorities’ reticence to support a full product recall, Sanlu/Fonterra have managed to achieve a similar outcome through a variety of other methods.”

That supports Fonterra which says they did everything they could once they knew there was a problem.

The company has always said its first concern was the chidlren who were poisoned and their families but there were also concerns over its, and New Zealand’s reputation.

However, The Hive  quotes from another Herald story (which isn’t on line) that says that in China it’s Australia which is being associated with the scandal rather than New Zealand.

Perhaps we can thank Cactus Kate for that.


Sanlu sunk?

October 17, 2008

The Shanghai Daily reports that Sanlu in which Fonterra has a 43% stake is “facing bankruptcy”.  

Industrial experts told the newspaper that it is unlikely a single company will be able to take over Sanlu as its debts total more than 700 million yuan ($NZ169 million) -not counting massive compensation claims.

Chinese newsagency Xinhua said yesterday that 5824 children were still receiving hospital treatment for kidney diseases caused by milk contaminated with melamine, and six children were in serious condition.

Macdoctor reckons Fonterra will have to put this down to experience.


People behind the numbers

October 16, 2008

Behind the headlines and the numbers of the milk powder poisoned by melamine in China story are people.


Chinese dairy companies apologise

October 13, 2008

Three Chinese dairy companies have apologised for their part in the melamine poisoning of milk used for infant formula.

Inner Mongolia Yili Industrial Group, Mengniu Dairy and Bright Dairy Group were earlier found to have produced milk contaminated with melamine.

The scandal has savaged the companies’ share prices and prompted Seattle-based coffee chain Starbucks to pull Mengniu milk from its 300-plus stores last month.
  
Chinese health officials say nearly 10,700 infants and children are still in hospital after drinking milk and formula contaminated with melamine.

Still no more than four dead – I hope that is the true number and not a result of censorship.


Fonterra responds on ethics

October 12, 2008

Last week’s NBR led with a story linking the disbanding of Fonterra’s ethics committee with the San Lu crisis and I commented on it here.

The comapny’s CEO Andrew Ferrier responded to the NBR with a letter to the editor this week saying the story was without foundation.

It’s not on line so here’s an abridged copy:

The suggestion that Fonterra has become a less ethical organisation under my leadership is outrageous and I reject it utterly. There is simply no factual basis for this story. . .

The article was entirely based on observations by the former external chairman of our internal ethics committee, Dr Simon Longstaff.

. . . As management and staff at Fonterra can verify, integrity and ethics are absolutely at the core of Fonterra’s way of working and corporate values and of my management style.

It was my decision . . . to disband the committee in the form that it was because I wanted to elevate ehtical considerations to the highest level of management under my personal direction.

Ethics has to be instilled and driven through an organisation from the very top and should not be the responsiblity of a middle and lower level management sub group.

. . . My and Fonterra’s every action in handling the San Lu crisis has been driven at all times by the highest ethical considerations. . . Fonterra’s sole priority was the health and safety of Chinese consumers and taking every practical step within the constraints of the Chinese system to protect them. . .

I have no questions over Fonterra’s ethics and agree with the importance of instilling ethics through an organisation rather than regarding them as an adjunct.

My concern is that Fonterra’s very high standards did not seem to be shared by San Lu in which it had a 43% investment.

Neither company can be blamed for the melamine poisoning which was an act of sabotage. But had the ethics and quality standards which Fonterra requires in every link of the production chain in New Zealand been required by San Lu in China the contamination would almost certainly have been picked up before anyone’s health was put at risk.

The company has learned the hard way about the difficulty of investing in other countries whose systems and standards are so different from ours. But the real test will be what it does now to ensure its standards are met everywhere it operates and that may mean it has to have a majority share in any overseas investments.


Protein tests the answer

October 11, 2008

Dr Allan Blackman, associate professor of chemistry at the University of Otago, explains the science behind the melamine milk poisoning in China and provides the answer – testing for protein not just nitrogen.


Fonterra donates $8.4m to Chinese charity

October 10, 2008

Fonterra has donated $8.4m ($US 5m) to a Chinese charity to establish a health care programme for mothers and babies in poor rural areas.

“We want to do what we can in China to help, particularly in areas around infant health and maternal issues,” Fonterra chief executive Andrew Ferrier, told NZPA.

He today signed a memorandum of understanding in Beijing with China Soong Ching Ling Foundation secretary Li Ning to fund the programme over five years.

It will set up community centres in rural and underveloped areas, with tools and resources to support prenatal and postnatal care, and provide information to ensure healthy pregnancies and babies.

Babies in poor and rural areas were some of the first reported to be affected by melamine-contaminated infant milkpowders sold by Fonterra’s Chinese joint venture, Shijiazhuang Sanlu Group Co, in which it held a 43 percent stake.

For more than a week reports on the numbers of babies who had become ill had remained at four dead, 12,892 infants in hospital, 104 with serious illness, and close to 40,000 others affected but not needing major treatment.

But Reuters reported this week the number of affected children has risen to nearly 94,000, 46,000 of them in Hebei province, where Sanlu is based, and neighbouring Henan province.

But Mr Ferrier said the $US5m donation was a gesture which should stand on its own as a reflection of the tragedy: it was not trying to link it to the milk contamination.

“Being associated with healthy food to infants…in the environment of this huge tragedy that has happened across the country, we thought that this would be a small gesture that Fonterra could show the broader Chinese community that we really care about children and their health,” he said.

“If we can help Soong Ching Ling Foundation particularly help infant health in rural areas where there’s the most poverty, that’s a great place to be helping out.”

The foundation already has a successful project for the safety of mothers and infants.

The new programme will build maternal and infant community hubs in China’s rural and underdeveloped communities, and will include exchange and teaching programmes to help give local health workers, obstetrical and paediatric doctors, and nurses in rural areas new opportunities to learn best practices in healthcare.

Fonterra has been the biggest exporter of milkpowder to China for 20 years and Mr Ferrier said it was strongly committed: “We are part of Chinese society”.

Sanlu was one of 22 companies which had its milk poisoned by melamine and because it is seen as a Chinese problem, Fonterra’s reputation has not been affected. However, as a shareholder, I am pleased the company is making this donation to help the people and I hope that the best practices include the advice that breast milk is best for babies.


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