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Amid tighter safety requirements, Chinese dairy farmers struggling

By John M. Glionna
Los Angeles Times / October 10, 2008
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PANZHUANGZI, China - Before dawn each day, Gao Peng Hong and his wife join scores of other farmers in this dairy-rich village who must walk their cows to a local milk collection station because of new safety requirements.

A byproduct of China's deadly contaminated milk scandal, the couple's mile-long walks to the station come as officials push for more critical supervision of dairy farmers. Only weeks ago, farmers were free to milk their cows at home and deliver the product in heavy metal containers.

But now some observers see dairy farmers, who exist at the lowest level of the milk production cycle, as having the most financial incentive to spike milk to boost protein readings.

Other food-safety analysts say it's unlikely that small-time farmers are behind the scandal, as they generally lack the knowledge to cause such widespread contamination.

Melamine-tainted milk is blamed for killing four babies and making 54,000 infants sick with kidney stones and other illnesses. The food-safety crisis, China's worst in decades, has led to numerous arrests, an international recall of milk-based Chinese products, and at least one lawsuit against a milk company.

The Chinese Health Ministry said yesterday that 10,666 children were still in hospitals.

China this week promised to overhaul the industry by monitoring each step in the milk supply chain, including collection stations, middlemen and manufacturers.

The adulteration, officials say, could come anywhere in the process.

Government tests have found that melamine contamination to be widespread, with one-fifth of the country's dairy companies implicated. Many food-safety analysts point to a growing black market among foodmakers for powdered melamine in China and elsewhere.

A material used to make plastics and laminates, powdered melamine has been employed by unscrupulous food companies to bulk up livestock feed, pet food and now, perhaps, baby formula.

In tests to determine nutritional values, melamine shows up as a protein, so manufacturers have used the compound to make products appear more nutritious.

While nontoxic, melamine can combine with other chemicals in the body to form crystals in the kidney that can cause renal failure. Last year, melamine-laced products were shipped from Chinese manufacturers to pet-food companies in the United States and elsewhere, resulting in the deaths of thousands of animals.

Jorgen Schlundt, the World Health Organization's Director of Food Safety, says powdered melamine may be produced in underground factories in China, beyond the realm of unsophisticated, small-time farmers. "It's very unlikely that single farmers are responsible - and significantly more likely it's the work of the collection centers," he said. "You have to treat the melamine before you use it. It's more complex than just putting a little powder into milk."

Chinese officials now require producers to track raw milk purchases back to the farmers who supplied them. Monitors have been sent to larger farms to gauge operations with specialized equipment.

Officials announced standards for levels of melamine permitted in milk and food products and have encouraged whistle-blowers to report violations.

Since the milk contamination was made public, China's food-safety chief resigned and other officials have lost their jobs.

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