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Dairy Safety Standards Trigger Debates

27 June 2011

CHINA - China's current dairy safety standards have stirred a new round of complaints, as critics have argued that they are the weakest in the world and were created as a favour for major dairy producers.

Proponents of the standards say they are in accordance with the "conditions of the dairy industry."

The maximum limit for bacteria in raw milk, or the aerobic plate count, is currently set at 2 million cells per milliliter in China, four times higher than the amount allowed under previous regulations.

Wang Dingmian, president of the Guangzhou Dairy Association, said the standards are a retreat to standards that haven't been used in 25 years and that the standards are the weakest of their kind in the world.

He believes the standards were lowered because of pressure from dairy producers seeking to reap larger profits by cutting costs.

Mr Nadamude, secretary general of the Dairy Association of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, said that 70 percent of China's dairy farmers will be forced to throw out their milk or even sell some of their cows if stricter standards are put into place.

The Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region is a major agricultural base and home to several large dairy companies, including Yili and Mengniu.

Nadamude attributed the lower standards to the fact that small-scale farming is popular among dairy farmers. Less than 30 per cent of the country's farmers have a herd of more than 100 cows.

"Small-scale farming often features poor sanitary conditions and limited means of preserving milk. Therefore, the aerobic plate count in raw milk is likely to increase," said Mr Nadamude.

The controversy over the dairy standards has made headlines across the country in recent days, with the People's Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of China (CPC), publishing articles by Mr Nadamude and Mr Dingmian on Wednesday.

China's dairy industry suffered a heavy blow after a scandal in 2008 in which baby formula was found to be tainted with melamine, an industrial compound used to create plastic and resin. The tainted formula led to the deaths of six infants and sickened 300,000 children across the country.

Nearly half of China's 1,176 dairy producers have failed to obtain new production licenses, the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine said in April.

Producers vs consumers

Mr Nadamude suggested that raising the national dairy safety standards might result in a shortage of milk and may create a dependence on imported dairy products.

"People will have to resign themselves to any price hikes that foreign dairy producers may impose," he said.

Improving the quality of raw milk requires an increase in large-scale dairy farming in China, according to Nadamude.

However, Mr Dingmian tried to refute Mr Nadamude's argument by saying that the lower standards have not benefited farmers who are engaging in small and medium-sized dairy farming, but have instead indirectly compromised the farmers' interests.

"Consumers are buying more foreign dairy products, sometimes at high prices or at risk of buying counterfeit products, because they are losing confidence in domestic products with lower standards," said Wang.

A series of food safety scandals have erupted in China in recent years, shattering consumers' confidence in domestic food products.

In addition to scandals in the dairy industry, the meat industry was recently rocked by a scandal involving clenbuterol, an illegal and poisonous chemical additive. Pork products produced by the Shuanghui Group, the country's largest meat processor, were found to be contaminated with the additive.

A prevailing craze for foreign products and a decrease in demand for domestic ones have emerged, preventing dairy farmers from selling raw milk at profitable prices.

"Farmers tell me that due to price reductions, they can hardly cover the cost of feed and labor, never mind making a profit," Mr Dingmian said.

Dairy companies are the only beneficiaries of the lowered standards, for they are now able to acquire raw milk and expand their market share in a cost-effective way, according to Mr Dingmian.

Raising the standards, as well as increasing the price of raw milk, is the only way out for the dairy industry, Mr Dingmian suggested.

"Farmers will be motivated to ensure that the quality of their raw milk lives up to the higher standards. The higher prices will encourage them to do so," said Mr Dingmian.



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