Bloomberg reported today on local media stories claiming that a baby had died in Jiangxi province after suffering from diarrhea and uncontrollable shaking, following the consumption of Youbo milk formula produced by Beijing-based Synutra International, whose share price subsequently nosedived.
But Kevin Swoffer, an independent food safety consultant, told DairyReporter.com that Western commentators should not jump to censure the Chinese for poor food safety controls.
He said: “Throughout history, where there’s a quick buck to be made by fraudulent individuals, it will happen. Europe isn't squeaky clean either.”*
According to news outlet China Daily, regional authorities have sealed the same batch of Synutra products in Duchang county, and the county’s office for industry and commerce said it had sent off samples for tested.
No recall effected
Synutra said in an initial statement that the cause of the baby’s death remained unknown, but that baby formula did not usually cause the symptoms, which it said were instead linked more commonly to flu or allergies.
Zhang Liang, chairman and CEO of the company, said in a statement yesterday. “We firmly believe this is an isolated incident unrelated to Synutra’s products. We have chosen to not recall any of our products because we are confident that they are safe.”
The company has made headlines for the wrong reasons yet again, after it was implicated in the 2008 melamine scandal that killed six children and sickened thousands, when the industrial compound (a chemical usually found in the form of white crystals rich in nitrogen) was added to milk to create artificially high protein readings in tests.
When asked what the Chinese authorities and major food producers there could do to clean up the country’s act on food safety, and perceptions thereof, Swoffer told DairyReporter.com:
“I deal a lot in China, and the country is going through what Europe and the US have done over the past few years. The media is very active in China now, despite the closed press.
“A work-related friend of mine said recently ‘every day without fail in the newspapers there’s a food issue’. Even Coca-Cola have had extortion threats recently. I think that was going on a few weeks ago as well.”
Getting a grip on Chinese food safety
Swoffer added: “The Chinese authorities are trying really hard to get a grip on some of these issues. You can imagine that the industry is not as sophisticated as in Europe or the States.”
He said: “I think there is also a big difference between deliberate adulteration and, let’s say, misadventure, when someone does something by accident or through ignorance. So I would be very careful not to judge the Chinese very harshly.
“They’ve got a major problem on their hands to bring the food industry into the 21st century. But they’re trying very hard, putting in new levels of expertise and looking at enforcement structures.
“But China’s an enormous place, the government infrastructure is very segmented, some of the country is very remote, and unfortunately there are also issues relating to adulteration, with the 2008 melamine crisis a classic case,” Swoffer added.
Correction to article
*On initial publication last Friday, Swoffer was quoted as referring to a food safety issue four years ago, relating to chicken in Ireland intended for sale as pet food but instead sold for human consumption.
The Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) contacted DairyReporter.com, claiming that this was "factually incorrect" and that it was "not aware of any such issue".
We have removed this quote, but have found evidence that a case along these lines did occur back in 2000 .
Other recent examples of food safety scare stories in Europe include the January 2011 crisis in Germany relating to dioxin contamination of eggs and meat, and the late 2008 Irish recall of pork products following the detection of elevated dioxin levels in pork of Irish origin.