Negligence and greed must not go unpunished

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 September, 2008, 12:00am

Nothing is more heartbreaking and infuriating than seeing little children needlessly harmed because of irresponsibility, negligence and greed. The milk-powder scandal which has hit the mainland is, therefore, a matter of the greatest concern. The delay in making the problem of tainted milk public is inexcusable. It appears that the Sanlu Group, the mainland's biggest dairy producer and a state-owned enterprise, failed to promptly disclose the contamination of hundreds of tonnes of baby-milk powder. Company officials knew of problems as early as March, and were aware of the contamination last month. But they only came clean last week. There have been tragic consequences. The number of babies known to have developed kidney stones has now risen to 432. One has died. Now that the central government is finally aware of the severity of the problem, it has acted decisively. All Sanlu's operations have, rightly, been shut down. Nationwide checks on all baby formula have been launched and criminal investigations are under way.

The scale of the contamination indicates that the use of dangerous substances in the mainland's dairy industry may be pervasive. If such an established and reputable company as Sanlu is exposed, smaller operators, suppliers and farmers may also be implicated. If this is a systemic problem, officials should take the scandal as an opportunity to reform the dairy industry.

Serious questions have been raised about the company's senior management and its actions in the past six months. Company officials received complaints from parents in March. They said its baby formula produced after August 6 was safe, but that batches produced before that date may be tainted. This means the company had identified the problem in the supply and production chains and fixed it. Yet it stayed silent about this until last week. When the news broke, company officials blamed counterfeiters. Even after acknowledging contamination, it pointed the finger at unscrupulous dairy farmers and suppliers. They may or may not be at fault, but Sanlu must bear ultimate responsibility for maintaining quality control and ensuring the safety of its products. The babies, its young and vulnerable customers, should have been protected. Much higher standards are required.

Unfortunately, most of the victims are from poor rural families. Their parents could only afford discount milk products, but they had, no doubt, thought the strong brand reputation of Sanlu provided a measure of quality and safety. Officials must now make sure those affected are provided with appropriate medical care and adequate compensation. The discovery of melamine, an industrial compound, in Sanlu's baby formula is particularly worrying. It fools tests into registering higher protein content and is the same substance found last year in tainted pet food shipped to North America. Once again, the safety of the mainland's food products is being called into question.

The latest scandal comes in the wake of reform of the country's food and drug regulator, which saw the Ministry of Health absorb the State Food and Drug Administration. The revamped superministry must establish its credibility and authority by getting to the bottom of this affair. The precise causes must be established and remedies found. Those found responsible should face criminal charges. Unless regulators start exercising effective supervision, the markets for food and drugs will be seriously damaged at home and abroad.

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