Lower milk standard to ward off melamine use

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 July, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 July, 2010, 12:00am

Beijing has accepted reality and lowered the mainland's minimum protein level for raw milk in what is seen as a move to discourage dairy farmers from adding the toxic industrial chemical melamine to their milk in order to pass protein tests.

The new national safety standard for dairy products, in force since the start of last month, lowered the minimum protein level required for raw milk from 2.95 per cent to 2.8 per cent, a dairy official said in Beijing yesterday.

The old standard had been in place since 1986 but most of the milk produced in some provinces failed to make the grade.

The mainland's dairy industry was rocked by scandal two years ago when it was discovered that farmers had been adding melamine to raw milk to increase nitrogen levels and fool protein tests. At least six children died from kidney failure and 300,000 others suffered from kidney stones caused by the melamine. Beijing blamed greedy farmers and dealers and executed two dealers last year to discourage the practice.

Wu Heping , secretary general of the Heilongjiang Dairy Industry Association, told a Ministry of Health press conference that the standard had been lowered to 'respect the reality of the domestic dairy farm industry'. He said 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. 'Raw milk produced by healthy cows whose protein level is lower than 2.95 grams per 100 grams does exist,' Wu said.

Most mainland dairy farms are small businesses with about three-quarters of farmers owning fewer than 100 cows. Almost a third own fewer than five.

Wu said a survey of one large dairy firm's raw milk found that protein levels from farms with fewer than 100 cows averaged 2.84 per cent.

'[A lowered standard] is more convenient to regulate the quality of raw milk,' Wu said. 'The protein level of raw milk mainly stays in the neighbourhood of 2.8 and 3.4.'

Chen Junshi , a researcher at the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention's Institute of Nutrition and Food Safety, said the lowered protein level requirement for raw milk would not affect the standards for liquid milk and milk powder bought by consumers. The mainland protein standard for pasteurised cow milk is 2.9 per cent. Industry insiders doubt that the central government's move will achieve its desired effect, because there is still a financial incentive for dairy farmers to add melamine to raw milk.

Guangzhou dairy industry association president Wang Dingmian said it was putting the cart before the horse.

'It is not a very wise incentive,' Wang said. 'There is still raw milk with a protein level below 2.8 per cent and the farmers still have every motivation to add melamine so that they will not have to throw away the milk.'

Wang also said that prices for raw milk varied in practice and better quality raw milk with higher protein levels fetched higher prices, giving farmers another incentive to add melamine. Wang said the best way to deal with the problem would be to upgrade the industry and give cows quality feed, which would raise protein levels in raw milk.

Despite repeated pledges by the authorities to crack down on melamine-tainted milk, it is a problem that keeps resurfacing. In February, hundreds of tonnes of stored toxic milk powder was discovered. Some of it was sold to make dairy products such as milk candy. And just last week, 76 tonnes of contaminated milk powder was found in Gansu and Qinghai , 39 tonnes of which had been bought from Hebei .

Chen Rui , an assistant director of the Ministry of Health's Food Safety and Health Inspection Bureau, admitted that the discovery of more tainted milk powder showed that the government needed to improve monitoring and \enforcement.

Toxic additives

Authorities are trying to discourage the use of melamine in milk

The new minimum protein level required for raw milk on the mainland is: 2.8%