Food scandal eclipses China’s Olympic glory

The China Post news staff

While China continued to bask in the glory of last month’s Olympics, a shocking scandal grabbed international headlines. So far, four babies have died and more than 1,300 babies have been hospitalized due to illness caused by toxic melamine found in baby milk powder formula, according to China’s Ministry of Health. The scandal hit China like a tsunami as anxious parents of victimized babies demanded action from the government and many of the country’s angry netizens called for the execution of top officials in charge of public health and food safety supervision. It was quite an embarrassment for Beijing, which was on top of the world a month ago when its Olympics were praised as one of the greatest in Olympic history. China won 51 gold medals to top the gold medal standings — unsurpassed by any other country since the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. But the glow was ephemeral. All of a sudden, the scandal of contaminated milk powder grabbed international headlines. The issue is especially politically-charged because Beijing has pledged to reform food safety regulations after a spate of pet food poisoning problems broke out last year in the United States, where dogs and cats died after eating melamine-laced food imported from China. The new scandal bodes ill for China, now the workshop of the world. The label “made in China” has become a warning sign since the outbreak of unsafe products were found in the United States and Europe in recent years. In Japan, the incident of “poison dumplings” imported from China remains a rancorous issue. The baby formula scandal adds insult to injury. What is worse is the alleged cover-up by both the producers and government officials. The Ministry of Health named 22 dairy companies whose products have been found containing melamine, including the state-owned Sanlu Group headquartered in Shijiazhuang near Beijing.

While China’s officials blamed dairy companies for failing to come forward about the problem, Fonterra, a New Zealand dairy firm with a 43 percent stake in Sanlu, said it learned of the problem in August and tried to prod Sanlu into making a public recall, but to no avail. Sanlu obliged only after state media broke the news last week. As the scandal snowballed, heads started to roll. The Communist Party fired Sanlu’s CEO Tian Wenhua, an award-winning model worker, and Shijiazhuang’s mayor and other officials in charge of product safety. The buck is unlikely to stop there. Bigger dominos in the province and the capital are likely to fall. This is because the stakes are too high. Beijing had spent seven years and US$42 billion for the Olympics to improve its international image. Beijing can’t afford to let the hard-fought prize be wiped out by a chemical that costs 200 yuan (US$30) per kilo, and watch the glow of the Games disappear in an instant.