Chinese Milk Boom and the Melamine Scandal

CHINA - The Chinese milk industry came from nowhere. With a huge nationwide drive it expanded rapidly, but demand and competition soared left many unable to cope. Does this sudden boom lie at the heart of the melamine scandal?
calendar icon 8 January 2009
clock icon 2 minute read

In their haste to boost the milk industry, the Chinese made mistakes that left six babies dead and hundreds of thousands ill from tainted milk, says a recent report in the Los Angeles Times.

'Milk is not part of the traditional Chinese diet', said the report, 'and Most Chinese adults are lactose-intolerant and many are repelled by the smell of dairy products.'

But in the 1990s, economic planners decided that dairy cows were a quick way to improve rural incomes, particularly in northern provinces such as Hebei, Inner Mongolia and Heilongjiang with cool climate, flat terrain and lack of other economic prospects. To encourage consumption, the propaganda machine spread the word that children needed to drink milk to grow as strong and tall as Westerners.

In a landscape that looks more Rust Belt than Dairy Belt, people opened farms in patches of land between derelict factories and villages.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the milk business started to become challenging in 2006. Prices for feed spiked, while milk prices were kept down by government controls and cutthroat competition. Sanlu paid dairy farms less than 7 cents per pint of milk.

At the bottom of the supply chain, many farmers who had sold their homes or borrowed money to buy their cows now slaughtered the animals for money. Or they cheated.

The most common way was to water down the milk and use additives to conceal it. Melamine, which is used in making plastics and not intended for human consumption, allows diluted milk to pass quality tests for protein. Although it was known to cause kidney stones and had been banned from pet food, milk dealers preferred it to food additives like hydrolyzed animal protein because it was tasteless and odorless.

By the time China's food regulators busted the Xingtang gang and others like it around the country, six babies were dead or dying and hundreds of thousands were sick.

TheCattleSite News Desk

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