Baby health scare a test for new super ministry

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 12 September, 2008, 12:00am

While the loss of life in the mine dam burst in Shanxi province is still being counted, mainland authorities have another worrying problem to contend with. A health alert linking highly unusual kidney stones in babies to a milk powder has spread from Gansu in the northwest to at least six more provinces. One baby has died and Gansu health authorities say they have had 59 cases of kidney stones in infants so far this year compared with none last year or the year before. Doctors and parents suspect they could be the result of babies being fed the same brand of milk formula.

Sanlu Group, the biggest milk powder producer on the mainland, initially blamed market pirates for illegally using its name. But last night the company admitted some of its milk powder products were tainted. A massive recall operation is now under way.

The scare is already being compared to the milk-powder tragedy four years ago in Anhui province , when 13 infants died after being fed a substandard product, along with four other deaths in Chongqing and Hubei . Another 170 suffered serious developmental abnormalities.

A number of economic and social factors contribute to the demand for baby formula as an alternative or supplement to breastfeeding. Some mothers have left rural homes to work in cities, leaving infants in the care of their family. Others have problems of insufficient milk, which may be linked to long working hours and nutrition issues. A recent survey by the China Consumers' Association of 15,000 mothers of babies under six months found that only just over half fed with breast milk exclusively. More than 32 per cent said it was impossible to breastfeed because of their work. But more than 14 per cent stopped breastfeeding because they thought powdered formula was more convenient and nutritious.

This reflects a worrying lack of awareness of the benefits of breastfeeding. The government has tried to correct this erroneous belief through an education campaign. It says it is worried about the use of baby milk formula in early childhood because the growth of Chinese babies lags that of infants in developed countries. It seems there is also a need to get the message through to doctors and health professionals. The survey found that 95 per cent of the mothers thought they could have stuck with exclusive breastfeeding with proper medical guidance.

For the sake of the next generation, the Ministry of Health must redouble efforts to convince mothers of the benefits of breastfeeding and try to make it a more accessible choice.

More urgent, however, is the need to ensure that milk powder on the mainland is safe for consumption. Administration of food and drug safety on the mainland has been plagued by cumbersome bureaucracy and scandals. It now comes under a so-called super ministry, after the Ministry of Health this month absorbed the State Food and Drug Administration. The merger is aimed at integrating a fractured regulatory system and boosting safety. But there are concerns that the concentration of power will lead to corruption and negligence. The baby health scare is a chance for the new regime to start off on the right foot in establishing its authority and credibility. Investigators must discover how the milk came to be tainted. Those responsible should be identified and punished for any wrongdoing. Safeguards must then be reviewed in a bid to prevent a recurrence.

For the sake of children on the mainland, ensuring that milk powder is safe must be made a priority.