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What Can We Learn From China's Tainted Milk?

By       Message Pamela Drew       (Page 1 of 1 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   No comments

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This week another tragedy occurred, involving tainted products made in China. Powdered milk from Shijiazhuang San Lu Group, China's largest corporate dairy, was found to be contaminated with toxic levels of melamine.

For those who may not remember, melamine was one of the toxins found in the deadly pet foods, imported into the United States by San Francisco based Wilbur-Ellis in June of last year. The contaminated rice was distributed by trusted major brands and dying pets sent a ripple of fear through consumer's hearts.

Several things about that incident are relevant to consumers with the current milk tragedy. The first point is about melamine, which was added to the milk because of its ability to alter the results of measurable protein. Where diluted product could be identified by a reduced protein measure, added melamine will make it achieve the standard of suitability for sale.

It is easy but highly misleading to put all the blame on the Chinese for this food safety flaw. Among the key points about our government's regulatory process, that parallels the situation in China is that you can't find what you don't look for specifically and asking the wrong questions will always yield the wrong answer.

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In this case what the Chinese process looked for was measurable levels of protein and they did not look for added toxins. The results speak for themselves as the death of two infants and sickness of more than 1,200 others clearly showed. The safety measures are woefully inadequate to assure public safety.

In retrospect the problem is easy enough to identify and the fact that regulatory tests were insufficient to identify toxic ingredients is obvious. Interestingly the company involved, Shijiazhuang San Lu Group is one of China's oldest and most respected firms.

Their century of operation earned them the enviable status of  "Renowned Chinese Brand Products," which has been a hallmark of quality and assurance of good practices that consumers put faith in.

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So what changed? One notable change was that San Lu entered into an historic partnership with a foreign entity. The New Zealand enterprise they partnered with Fonterra, the largest marketer of dairy ingredients in the world, and run by Sanjay Khosla. Khosia was subsequently named president of the international commercial division of KRAFT foods, which is owned by tobacco giant Phillip Morris.

While there is no direct link between the former head of the New Zealand Fonterra and the criminal actions of the individuals in China there are some points to consider that do not bode well for consumer confidence. Those concerns go beyond the healthy skepticism we should have for safety assurances from a corporation with a history of deceiving the public about health risks tied to their products.

It speaks to the values that place profitability over public welfare and for those who track corporate influence on regulation creates an eerie parallel between the US and New Zealand, the only two countries in the world that allow direct marketing of drugs to consumers. Why?

Because it reflects a legislative bias that gives more weight to corporate marketing than it does to consumer protections by moving prescription drugs from the realm of physicians to commodities.

We all care because the death and illness of innocent children anywhere in the world is an event that tugs at the heart strings of any caring person. We should also care because this is one more bit of evidence of the interrelated system of a globalized, corporate food system where the agribusiness players agenda of maximizing profits and minimizing regulatory oversight touches us all.

We should be worried because the policy of measuring the protein levels, which allowed melamine laced milk to pass the test for suitability are virtually identical to the American policy of testing genetically modified, gmo foods. The gmo varieties are tested for protein and nutrients and no measures are required for novel proteins or plant incorporated pesticides. No one looks for what is different, only what is known to be the same.

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In their press release about the contaminated milk, the FDA was quick to assure American consumers that the Chinese company involved is not on the list approved to sell dairy products in America. What the FDA cannot do is tell American consumers that the foods we are eating have been subjected to the tests we know they should be in order to assure human health is protected.

The gmo foods have not been subjected to safety testing for human health effects. They have been exempted by a policy of "substantial equivalence" that measures nutrient values only and calls the gmo and traditional foods the same.

As we see from the melamine laced milk from China that met the measure for protein levels, hitting the right mark may make the protein substantially equivalent to the traditional form but it isn't close enough to the right measurement to make it safe!!


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Pamela Drew tracks the legislation, politics, science and spin surrounding the genetically altered foods. She is a freelance researcher, writer and documentary film producer living in New York City, where she works with advocacy groups and small (more...)

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