November 24th, 2010 Meaghan
(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)
The affair caused some 300,000 infants to became sick, six of them fatally. They were killed by powdered milk tainted with melamine, an industrial chemical used in plastics and fertilizer. Zhang, a dairy farmer from the province of Hebei, sold hundreds of tons of tainted milk powder in 2007 and 2008; he was the largest supplier. Geng supplied toxic milk to dairy companies.
The scandal was stupendous and made headlines all over the world. According to Time magazine, the tainted milk found its way to Taiwan, Singapore and Japan. China’s $232 million dairy export industry cratered as the European Union and a dozen nations in Asia and Africa banned Chinese milk and milk products. The farmers who depended on milk sales for their livelihood were reduced to simply pouring their surplus stock down the drain, and since nobody wanted to buy dairy cows under these conditions, some farmers just slaughtered their animals.
Top: Chinese farmers destroy tainted milk. Bottom: Zhang Yujun (left) and a supplicating Geng Jinping (right).
Nor was milk wasn’t the only export product with this problem; Wikipedia’s timeline of the scandal states melamine was subsequently discovered in Chinese eggs, egg powder, baking ammonia, chicken, crackers and animal food.
Melamine was added to the milk to fool government protein tests, which would show whether the milk had been diluted or not. (Watered-down milk had been a problem in the past; in 2004 thirteen Chinese babies died of malnutrition after being fed milk that was so watery it had almost zero nutritional value.) Melamine, like protein, is high in nitrogen, so the presence of melamine in food would cause the protein content to appear higher than it really was.
It isn’t clear whether the people who altered the milk knew — or cared — that it was poisonous. Very poisonous. Melamine is never supposed to be used in food; it causes kidney stones and in some cases complete renal failure, especially in young children. A child can take over six months to recover from exposure.
Some blame must be attached to the (suspect) Chinese food safety administration, which in May 2008 reported that over 99% of baby milk powders had been deemed safe. (In fact, one major dairy company had begun hearing complaints about its baby milk as far back as the previous December.) The Ministry of Health was informed about the sick infants in July. There are strong suspicions that the government tried to suppress the reports to avoid embarrassment; the Olympics were in Beijing that summer and the world’s eye was on China. The scandal was only made public in September, after the Games.
Twenty-one people involved in the scandal were brought to trial on various charges in December 2008, and convicted in January.
Tian Wenhua, the general manager of the Chinese dairy giant Sanlu, pleaded guilty to producing substandard goods and was sentenced to life in prison. She admitted she’d known the milk was bad for four months before she reported this fact to the authorities. Sanlu tried to keep complaining parents quiet by giving them free milk, which was also tainted. Tien was widely perceived as being the person most responsible for the scandal, and many were disappointed that she didn’t get the death sentence.
Other defendants received various prison terms. One of them was given a suspended death sentence, but only Zhang (guilty of endangering public safety) and Geng (guilty of producing and selling toxic food) were actually executed.
Also on this date
- 1879: Phra Pricha
- 1868: Giuseppe Monti and Gaetano Tognetti, by the Papal guillotine
- 1933: Earl Quinn, forgiver
- 1326: Hugh Despenser the Younger, King Edward II's lover?
- 1922: Robert Erskine Childers, for carrying the gun of Michael Collins
- 1740: Not William Duell