China is in the midst of a major scandal of contaminated milk. And it may be hitting the Philippines and other countries.

Someone has been watering down their milk and adding the chemical Melamine to the milk. Melamine tests similar to protein, so the watered milk tests as full strength milk. Multiply this by a couple million gallons, and you can make quite a profit.

The result? Lots of sick Chinese babies (one article quotes 57,000 babies in China who were affected), and a couple  have died from kidney disease. But the scandal doesn’t stop there.

There were hints of problems a couple months ago, but the corporation was lax at their investigation, and there are some reports that officials ordered a coverup of the problem because they didn’t want “bad news” to be reported during their Olympic games . Will this lead to more regulations? More importantly, will the Chinese government place more stress on honest inspections, i.e. where inspectors don’t merely check paperwork,  refuse to take bribes, or don’t inspect plants run by their friends and relatives?

What makes it worse is that the company involved in a lot of the milk manufacturing has ties to a New Zealand company, which again points to the problem of outside companies who subcontract with China (similar to the tainted dogfood and tainted heparin scandal).
In the meanwhile, the European Union is checking and banning milk products from China. No reports of dead kids there, but they are busy inspecting not only milk but manufactured products that contain more than 15% milk powder or milk from China.

Here in the Philippines, there is a double worry. A lot of milk brands originate in China. It has been estimated that the Philippines has imported 2 million kilograms of milk from China this year. The government has ordered stores to remove all milk and milk products of Chinese origin from their shelves, with the threat of losing their license if they are caught selling the products.

But local inspectors are still finding small vendors selling the milk at discount prices.(often the outdoor markets have less regulation, and there are also door to door vendors).

Yes, both sellers and people who have bought milk have been ordered to discard all milk of Chinese origin (the government will release which brand contain such milk in the next few days). But how many people won’t hear the announcement? And how many will figure it’s worth it for cheap milk from the local vendor?

And, of course, this is the Philippines. If there is a way to make money, someone will do it: the danger is that the milk will be processed or relabeled to sell, perhaps in candy etc. by small vendors, or even by regular companies who figure they can falsify the paperwork  or bribe inspectors. And then, we have a large open coastline, and a lot of smuggling goes on.

We usually buy local Caribou (water buffalo)  milk (which is high in creme and we use in our coffee). But sometimes we supplement it with boxed milk, usually a brand imported from New Zealand or Australia. My husband Lolo  sometimes drinks a 4 oz carton at bedtime to help him sleep.  But for the last two weeks, the store has stocked only a new brand. Is it Chinese? I’m not sure…but I will discard the little milk that we have left, and stick to the local milk.

But the real problem is that this is another “wake up call” about China. Too many companies investing in China assume honesty, such as is found in the “Asian tiger” nations and Japan. But China has a long history of bribery and dishonest business practices. Will stricter government regulation help?

The problem of shoddy goods is a major problem in the third world: especially counterfeit or sub standard medicines, which according to the UN has killed half a million people each year, 200 thousand from fake malaria medicine alone.  But the problem also includes hardware, auto and truck replacement parts, and everyday items.

For example, when we bought faucets locally, they had to be replaced two years later. But the US imported faucets in our house are still fine: but we had to go to Subic (now a big import market) to buy them. Now, this is faucets. What about car breaks,  bicycle chains, tires, etc.? You get the picture. We can afford the trip to stores which we know stock imported high quality hardware; too many others will buy locally and just have to put up with the shoddy goods.

One end result could encourage more companies to place factories elsewhere where corruption is less rampant. This might mean only placing them in certain areas of China; it also might mean relocating to other countries.

A second result could be stricter control of goods from the Chinese government officials. The bad news is that in such a large country, the poorer rural areas are more likely to ignore the rules to make a profit.

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Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. Her webpage is Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket.

 


 

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