Minister cites fast expansion as scandal touches soya milk

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 October, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 October, 2008, 12:00am

Loopholes in safety protocols threaten dairy industry

Numerous loopholes in product-safety protocols and company management had widened the tainted-milk scandal that threatens to engulf the mainland's dairy industry, Industry Minister Li Yizhong said.

In a further spreading of the scandal, soya-milk brand Bingquan has been removed from shelves in Guangzhou because of melamine concerns, the Yangcheng Evening News reported. If confirmed, it will be the first soya-milk product to have tested positive for melamine contamination.

Sales of soya-milk products have soared since the tainted-milk scandal broke out about a month ago. Bingquan, based in Guangxi , said the recall was a 'precaution'.

The expansion of the food industry, and the dairy industry in particular, had been too rapid in recent years, and the management of industrial quality had lagged considerably behind, Mr Li told Xinhua yesterday.

In the past few years, the number of medium-sized and larger dairy producers had surged to 743, at an average annual increase of more than 20 per cent.

But he said 'the majority of them' did not have equipment that could test for melamine - an industrial chemical found in the past month in dairy products ranging from baby milk powder to yogurt and chocolate for domestic and international consumption.

Mr Li said the hiring of independent testing agencies for quality management was rare in the dairy industry because it was time-consuming and costly.

In a rare admission of the country's lax quality protocols, which do not routinely monitor melamine, Mr Li said the recent milk scandal had exposed 'a massive loophole in food-safety regulation'.

But in an apparent defence of big dairy producers, he said a recent nationwide inspection had yet to find any of them had deliberately added melamine to milk products.

The scandal, which has led to the deaths of at least four infants and seen more than 54,000 others fall ill nationwide, could be blamed on a few small milk-collecting plants and profit-driven 'unlawful elements', Mr Li said.

A recent inspection of Sanlu Group, the company based in Hebei that set off the scandal, detected malpractice at 41 of its collecting stations.

'Most of the problems lie in the raw-milk collecting and processing stages,' Mr Li said. 'That is the area we are going to focus on in the sweeping reform of the dairy industry.'

In an all-out effort to restore shattered consumer confidence, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology was racing to establish stricter safety protocols, which would require dairies to invest more in their own farmers instead of purchasing raw milk from industrial middlemen, and would impose stricter requirements on newcomers to the industry.