Long wait for victims of tainted milk

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 December, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 December, 2008, 12:00am
 

The mainland's announcement of a more-than-fivefold jump in the number of babies made ill by melamine-tainted milk powder was yet another sad reminder to parents whose children were affected and who have tried in vain to sue for compensation.

On Monday, for the first time since September, the Ministry of Health updated the figure for the number of babies affected by tainted milk powder made by Hebei's Sanlu Group and other dairy companies.

The ministry said six babies might have died, up from its previous toll of four, and more than 290,000 infants nationwide had shown symptoms of urinary disorders. Previously, authorities had said nearly 54,000 babies had needed hospital treatment.

The ministry's notice said 861 babies were still in hospital, with 154 in critical condition.

Melamine is an industrial chemical that, if consumed, can cause kidney stones. Adding it to substandard food, such as watered-down milk, artificially boosts its nitrogen content, allowing the item to pass tests for protein levels.

Its discovery in milk powder sent shockwaves through China and around the world, not only because of the scale of its impact but also because of allegations that lower-level authorities had covered up the scandal for fear of ruining the Beijing Olympic Games.

Sanlu and the Hebei government allegedly were alerted at least as early as July of the harm caused by the adulterated milk powder. Frantic parents queued for days to have their babies tested and treated for kidney malfunction, as the count of affected infants continued to surge, and more dairy producers were implicated.

The government introduced measures to improve the dairy industry and product quality in general, but there was an overwhelming silence about compensation.

Lawyers have helped at least a dozen parents try to file lawsuits in different provinces, but none of the courts have dared accept the cases. Legal sources said courts were notified internally not to accept such claims, pending a central government order. Lawyers were also warned by judicial officials not to act for Sanlu victims.

However, a group of lawyers has continued to offer free legal advice and push for compensation. They lodged a letter of complaint with Sanlu on November 24 on behalf of 54 victims' families, hoping to start talks with the company, but have received no answer. One of the group's co-ordinators, Xu Zhiyong , said the group might try to lodge a class action, or group lawsuit, this week. But this approach has rarely succeeded on the mainland.

'We hope that more parents can join in the lawsuit. The more people we have, the bigger pressure we can exert, and the bigger chance we have to win fair compensation,' Mr Xu said.The group also proposed setting up a government-led compensation fund to take care of victims' present and future needs. The money for the fund could come from fines imposed on the milk-powder makers.

Shanghai-based lawyer Shen Xianlei , who represented Yi Kaixuan , an infant who died of kidney failure in May in Gansu after consuming Sanlu milk powder for all six months of his life, said a change of legal tactics would probably be futile.

'This is a matter for the government to decide,' Mr Shen said. 'Struggles [in the courts] will not make a difference.'

Kaixuan's father said he was trying not to think about the failed lawsuit he had brought in mid-October, but this latest news was salt to an old wound. 'We can only wait,' said Yi Yongsheng .

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