Three years after a melamine-tainted milk scandal destroyed public confidence in the dairy industry, it remains the most fragile part of the mainland food sector, and is widely distrusted.
That perhaps explains why the public finds it hard to believe that there was nothing underhand in the revision of raw milk standards last year, despite repeated explanations by the authorities. The new standards, unveiled in March and implemented three months later, represented a substantial lowering of the bar compared with the previous standards, in place since 1986.
Those doubts exploded last month when the Communist Party mouthpiece People's Daily, quoting two experts who were involved in setting the new standards, suggested the process had been 'hijacked' by dairy industry giants, resulting in much lower standards.
'Basically, confidence in the dairy industry and even the food safety authorities has been eaten up,' said Professor Zhu Yi, from the Nutrition Engineering Institute at China Agricultural University. 'Raw milk and dairy farmers were blamed for the melamine-tainted milk scandal three years ago, yet time passed and the public has not seen much progress. No explanation, no matter how scientific it sounds, can make up for the disappointment.'
The new standards allow as many as two million bacteria per millilitre of raw milk, whereas the old standards allowed four grades, ranging from four million to 500,000. Even the lowest level allowed before was way above standards in the West, with Europe and the United States setting maximum bacteria levels of 100,000 per millilitre and industry standards often setting the maximum at 50,000. The new mainland standards also lowered the minimum protein content of raw milk from 2.95 grams per hundred grams to 2.8 grams, a significant step away from the developed world standard of 3 grams.
'Call it Chinese characteristics; no one is really sure what happened because of the lack of transparency,' said one anonymous dairy association official.
Lower standards made it possible for dairy companies to buy raw milk more cheaply and bring down costs, the official said.
Zeng Shouying, deputy director of the China Dairy Association's dairy industry committee, told the People's Daily that the draft raw milk standards for internal discussion were put together by dairy giants: pasteurised milk by Mengniu, raw milk by Yili and sour milk by Bright.
Both Zeng and Wei Ronglu, an official with the Dairy Association of Western China also quoted by the newspaper, said they attended meetings where 'one third of the representatives were from dairy companies'.
Wei said he also attended a meeting where a final version of the draft was agreed upon with stricter standards for bacteria and protein. But when the standards were officially announced, they were lax. Both officials said they were unsure where the standards were changed or why, leaving room for speculation that special interests were protected.
Yili said company representatives had attended such meetings, along with representatives of 10 other dairy companies. But it said the draft standards were just for discussion before being submitted to the authorities and a group of experts. Mengniu Dairy said it had made a proposal but had no final say.
More experts from the Ministry of Health joined the chorus of denial. Zhang Xudong, a ministry official in charge of food safety, told Xinhua it was crucial to include nine representatives from dairy firms in the drafting process because they knew the products and processes involved. Documents posted on the ministry's website showed a panel of 70 experts, including academics, government officials, trade unionists and dairy company representatives.
The initial and final drafts were all put forward by the entire panel after thorough discussions and the important decisions were made in the next two phases, where the dairy industry was not included, Zhang said.
Chen Junshi, a researcher at the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention's Institute of Nutrition and Food Safety, said only government officials, with the most senior being the health and agriculture ministers, and academics were involved in the last two phases and it was a group decision.
Chen said even though the standards had been changed they were still safe. 'The bacteria count, which contrary to popular belief is not necessarily linked to the likelihood of the milk causing illness, just indicates the hygiene of the dairy farm environment and the transportation and collection process,' Chen said. He said Europe had higher hygiene standards because its farms were better than those on the mainland.
But Li Jianrong, deputy director of the Liaoning Key Laboratory for Food Safety, was not convinced.
'All the explanations are just excuses,' he said. 'Chinese people learned to drink milk from the West. Why not apply the same safety and nutrition standards as in the US or Europe. You can't lower the standards based on the fact that your management and technology can't keep up. How come raw milk could reach the two requirement 25 years ago but not today?'
A survey of raw milk quality in several northern provinces, where most of China's cows are milked, found that between 75 per cent and 90 per cent of raw milk in some provinces had failed to reach the old protein level standard in 2007 and 2008.
Most mainland dairy farms are small businesses, with almost a third owning fewer than five cows. Small dairy farms are not usually as hygienic as big ones and that results in high bacteria counts in raw milk. Small-scale dairy farmers also tend not to provide high-quality feed, resulting in low protein levels in raw milk.
When the same issue was debated in July, Nadamude, secretary general of the Dairy Association of Inner Mongolia, said 70 per cent of China's dairy farmers would be forced to throw out their milk or even sell some of their cows if stricter standards were imposed. He said it was more important for people to have milk than to have high quality milk.
Zhu, from China Agricultural University, said the mainland did not used to have such huge demand for dairy products and most dairy farms used to be state-owned and of better quality. 'Small-scale farms and poor management were blamed three years ago yet we still see dairy companies spend huge amounts on marketing rather than on improving dairy farms,' she said. 'It is wrong to lower the standard to fit the reality. Don't cut the foot to fit the shoe.'
The latest figure for the amount of dairy produce consumed by mainland urban dwellers a year. Rural dwellers consumed just 5kg