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Beijing, MD

August 24, 2010 Leave a comment
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Rumour has it that BBC journalists are offered a single piece of advice when they arrive to cover a story in India – eat everything because you’ll get sick anyway.  The same advice can be applied to those traveling through China.

My health has taken a few knocks in China. From the usual travelers stomach to kidney stones to God knows what I’ve had mixed in my drinks in Sanlitun. For the last few months, my insistence that I cook at home following the poisoned chopsticks, poisoned napkins and oil swill horror stories that surfaced over the summer has meant that I’ve had a pretty good 8 months so far.

Then I met a child and went down with that most feared of afflictions – a summer cold. My policy on kids has always been that they’re messy, stinky, horrible little creations that only their mothers could love – there’s far too many of them, we could do with a lot less, and I’m always in the minority  when it comes to discussing this precise point.  . My experience with Chinese kids has been to steer clear of them. Few of them have heard the word “no” in their short lifetimes, and almost all of them have little or no idea of what constitutes basic hygiene. In a country where I’ve had to tell a fully grown 24 year old man to please stop picking his nose in my class, this shouldn’t be too much of a shocker.

I admit that I am somewhat biased in the negative when it comes to the Chinese attitude towards what good parenting means. I’m one of those old fashioned types who thinks that a child should not be left with grandparents or the aiyi for 16 hours a day while the mother goes off to study English. Come to think of it, I’m rather biased towards anything medically traditional in China. I think it comes from the time when I was suffering from what could only be described as “epic diarrhea” after eating chuanr of dubious origin and was subsequently given TCM that I was told would take three or four days to take effect.

Deciding that in three or four days I would be lucky to have any bones left, I went to a better pharmacy and bought some proper medicine – I asked for loperamide at the pharmacy, the chemist muttered that she didn’t know if they had it, checked and returned with handfuls of loperamide based medications – only in China can you find a pharmacist who doesn’t know what medicines they have in stock.

Those of us who have lived here for a while know the appalling state of public health.  Despite being illegal, spitting (of the FA Premier League variety) borders on becoming a Chinese custom.  Public toilets have little in the way of soap, and the hospital toilet that I went to today in order to provide a sample for the erstwhile medical professional in charge of the gastroenterology department at the Sino-Japanese Friendship Hospital (which isn’t that friendly) had little in the way of running water.  On more than one occasion, I’ve seen people who in restaurants and coffeeshops enter a cubicle in a public convenience, and exit a few minutes later without washing their hands.  Grown men pick their noses, waitresses pick their feet in street restaurants and there is, what has been termed by the group of expats that I hang out with, a certain “brown smell” that lingers in the hutongs over the summer months.

It’s safe to say that public hygene is not a top priority for the Chinese.  People get sick with little regard as to why they get sick.  Public awareness of modern medicine is low, and people would rather spend money on cheaper traditional cures and folk remedies than go see a doctor.  That’s because most people don’t actually trust their doctors.  No one knows the difference between a viral and bacterial infection, and few people actually argue with their doctor when and if they think that their doctor is wrong.

It’s only when you get sick in China that the Twilight Zone sensation that you’ve learned to live with and sort of accept gets cranked up a notch. I was told during a particularly traumatic episode of diarrhea that I shouldn’t drink any water, I’m repeatedly told that drinking cold water during the summer (regularly pushing the mercury up to 35 degrees) is bad for my health – indeed, it’s even worse if you’re a woman for some unknown reason. Pregnant women shouldn’t drink icy drinks after giving birth (actually they shouldn’t shower, leave the bed or do anything that would raise their pulse about 60 beats a minute).  There’s no Casualty, or ER or even anything like The Flying Doctors on Chinese TV, and for expats the difference is palpable – no one knows anything.  If you don’t believe me, I’ll leave you with one final story –  to cure a bad hangover, I went into a pharmacy and asked for aspirin – I was  sold the morning after pill.

Unravelling the Melamine Milk Scam

In 2007, the FDA discovered that high levels of melamine were found in pet food, and many dogs and cats across America had become ill after eating the contaminated feed. At first, the CCP had denied that the food had been exported at all from China saying, going as far to say that no wheat gluten products had been exported from China to the US.

The Las Vegas company, ChemNutra that imported and subsequently resold the pet food from from the Chinese company Xuzhou said that the Chinese company had presented itself as the sole manufacturer, but investigation by the Chinese authorities revealed that the company may have had as many as 25 different suppliers. Xuzhou had failed to declare that it was exported food or animal feed to the Chinese export regulators and therefore circumvented the checks that are usually carried out on products intended for animal or human consumption.

Months before the pet poisoning case came to light, Xuzhou had posted on Internet bulletin board soliciting melamine scrap. Why exactly a food company was asking for large amounts of melamine scrap was not investigated by the Chinese, even though a ban currently exists on using melamine in vegetable protein. Despite being illegal, chemical producers admit they have supplied food companies with melamine – “Melamine is mainly used in the chemical industry, but it can also be used in making cakes”, said Li Xiuping, a manager at Henan Xinxiang Huaxing Chemical in Henan Province.

The US immediately banned imported wheat gluten products from China, mainly because the idea that the chemical had been deliberately introduced into animal food, and that the same might be true for products intended for human consumption.

If poisoning pets wasn’t bad enough, in December 2007, a baby milk manufacturer started to receive complaints from parents that their baby formula was making their babies sick.

The Sanlu Baby Milk poisoning crisis hit shortly after the Olympics closed, but what most people don’t know is that accusations that the company had been supplying tainted, possibly life threatening baby formula as early as December 2007, and the company wrote to local CCP officers in June 2008 to assist them in covering up the scandal to avoid “whipping up the issue and creating a negative influence in society.” Even as late as August 6th, two days before the start of the Olympic Games, the company had pulled it’s products from manufacturers, but had not issued a public recall. A public statement was not issued until September 9th, by which time dozens of babies had developed life threatening kidney stones, and at least one baby had died. A recall of 700 tons of baby formula followed on September 11th. Ten days later, fifty-three thousand babies were reported as being sick, and just under thirteen thousand Chinese babies had been hospitalized, with over 100 listed as being in serious condition.

Because of the apparent safety inspections that Sanlu were supposed to have performed on their own products, they were granted an exemption from the State General Administration of Quality Supervision, who also awarded Sanlu a State Science and Technology Award, which is the highest accolade that can be awarded to a Chinese company. When the company first revealed that contaminants were being found in their baby milk, the Olympic Games was incentive enough for the government to “increase control and coordination of the media, to create a good environment for the recall of the company’s problem products,” this was essentially a concerted effort from local and central government cadres to hush-up the fact that poisonous melamine had been added routinely to milk to artificially increase the protein content.

Mass confusion followed, as babies were rushed to hospital with critical kidney complaints, and testing of imported Chinese food products revealed that melamine had been added to many more products than previously thought. Even though four babies died, and some fifty thousand children were hospitalized as a direct result of ingesting the plastic resin, the government felt that the Olympic Games were more important to China that Chinese babies were.

The reason why the so many dairy products have been tainted with melamine is quite simple: China is still a nation of farmers, and cows are expensive, they can buy cheaper cows, but they invariably produce milk which has a lower protein yield. If melamine is added to the milk, then the protein yield, when tested, will be much higher and the milk won’t be refused by a bottling factory, the return on the farmer’s investment is higher too – when added to cottonseed meal, the falsified protein yields can mean an extra one thousand Yuan per ton of meal. The farmers don’t know what melamine is, they just know that if they add it to their milk, or to their animal feed, they’ll get more money for it. Since melamine was added to what the cows eat, and then that milk was polluted even further by milk dealers and at milk collecting stations, the amount of melamine that was found in some milk products was thirty-six-times higher than US FDA regulations permit. Even if a farmer, or a feedmill owner wanted to test the what they were feeding to their animals, the testing kits cost $145 each (about 1,000RMB), it’s too expensive, so no one performs any tests.

The whole sorry tale has come out into the open, but it’s not just that fact that Sanlu and many others were adding poisonous chemicals to their products, it’s the idea the companies tried to cover-up what happened, and that various government departments were complicit in making the situation much worse that it should’ve been.

Sanlu initially denied the allegations that it’s products were linked with the rise in admissions of infants with kidney problems. They tried to buy off critics and gave free milk to the parents who were kicking up the most fuss. Wang Yuanping wrote an Internet post about the problems that his child was having, Sanlu dutifully offered him $400 worth of free milk to take the Internet post down, he complied and gave the milk to his friends. On the advice of a Beijing based PR firm, Teller International, Sanlu turned their attention to Internet search engines.

Teller and International advised Sanlu to co-operate with companies like Baidu, one of the largest Chinese Internet search websites. Sanlu’s interpretation of the “co-operation” was to offer Baidu a $440,000 (three million RMB) “budget” to screen all the negative press from the search engine indices. To date, 32 countries have withdrawn dairy-based products from their supermarket shelves, and the stock price of Sanlu has plummeted by 40%. The World Health Organization was particularly harsh in it’s criticism of the crisis, saying, that this was “clearly not an isolated accident, [but] a large-scale intentional activity to deceive consumers for simple, basic, short-term profits.”

Anger has grown in the Chinese populous too, with many people wondering why the government is so unmoved by the death of Chinese babies. Wen Jaibao apologized, eventually, but his requests for forgiveness sound awfully similar to the way he asked for the people’s pardon for the deaths of coal miners, contaminated drinking water, and the slow reaction to the 2007 snow storms that plagued southern China:

“This incident made me feel sad, though many Chinese have been understanding. It disclosed many problems for government and company supervision of the milk sources, quality and marketing administration… The government will put more efforts into food security, taking the incident as a warning.

What we are trying to do is to ensure no such event happens in future by punishing those leaders as well as enterprises responsible. None of those companies without professional ethics or social morals will be let off.”

-Wen Jiabao, China’s Premier (21 September 2008)

The apologies were well intentioned, but the Chinese went a little too far at a meeting at the WHO when they claimed that the melamine had been, in fact, added accidentally, directly contradicting the WHO’s own observations that the contamination had been deliberate. The CCP also began denying that certain things or people even existed.

When Zhu Yonglan, the Director of the State Council Central Government Offices Special Food Supply Center, revealed in a speech in August 2008, that her firm had worked to supply party members, retired cadres and their families with dairy food that was organically produced and of the highest quality, as she said herself,

“We all know that average production facilities use large quantities of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Antibiotics and hormones are commonly used in raising livestock and poultry. Farmed aquatic products are contaminated by various kinds of water pollution. It goes without saying that these are harmful when consumed by humans,”

In a Xinhua press release on September 26th, the CCP denied the existence, not only of the food supply centre, but also the fact that Zhu Yonglan had been awarded the contract, and that Zhu Yonglan didn’t actually exist at all.

Luckily, to draw attention from the fact that the Chinese government was aware of the damaging effects of melamine and that it was in the national food chain, and that they had set up a special company in order to insulate Party leaders from the poisons, the launch of the Shenzhou VII rocket was a nice little distraction for Xinhua to play up, while it played down anther disastrous health scare in China.