Should China Call It Quits With Milk Production?

More toxic milk out of the world’s most populous country sheds more doubt on its food-safety regulations.
Officials are ordering Chinese companies to throw out toxic milk. (jrubinic/Creative Commons)
Dec 27, 2011
Megan Bedard is a sucker for sustainable agriculture and a good farmers market, she likes writing about food almost as much as eating it.

In recent years as incomes have risen, dairy has become a staple in the Chinese diet. But its benefits to cuisine and health may not outweigh its risks in a country with lax regulation.

In the country's third major milk scandal in less than a decade, China's largest dairy, Mengniu Dairy Group, and a smaller company, Fujian Changfu Dairy Industry Group, have been ordered to destroy their milk products after a recent investigation revealed cancer-causing toxins in the companies' milk. Quality supervision and inspection agency officials say the chemical known as aflatoxin came from rotten cow feed.

Aflatoxin is produced by a fungus that grows naturally on grain and legume crops. When animals consume mildewed crops, the toxin shows up in their milk. At low doses, aflatoxin isn't detrimental to human health, but high doses can cause cancer, particularly in the liver.

Inspectors from the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine detected the chemical in mid-October while testing the milk at Mengniu Dairy Group. The inspections were done early in the production process, before Mengniu had run its own tests, and turned up high levels of aflatoxin. Since then, high levels of aflatoxin were found at Fujian Changfu Dairy Industry Group, as well.

The Associated Press reports that both companies have issued public apologies. Mengniu Dairy blamed a subsidiary in Sichuan province, and said that no toxic products had entered the market. Fujian Changfu Dairy said it recalled the affected products immediately upon learning the news.

Officials assured the public that once cows stop eating the mildewed feed, contamination will stop. But with a history of food safety faux pas, can China be trusted to improve regulation?

In 2008, infant formula and milk products adulterated with melamine killed six babies and sickened 300,000 people who fell ill with kidney stones and other kidney-related problems. Mengnui Dairy was one of the 22 companies who produced melamine milk, and has been working to rebuild its reputation since.

Four years prior, about 200 babies suffered malnutrition in Anhui province after consuming fake baby formula that failed to provide the nutrition the babies needed. Doctors said the milk scandal caused the worst malnourishment they had seen in two decades.

Despite promises from Mengnui Dairy to increase oversight in the wake of the recent catastrophe, in Shanghai consumer confidence has faltered. The Wall Street Journal reports that other Chinese dairy company stocks fell after officials released the information, even for companies not linked to the scandal.

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