Three babies have died so far, and many more are seriously ill. All because the company wanted to boost the milk's protein value cheaply:
Beijing - As Chinese officials warned Tuesday that contaminated milk powder may have sickened more than the 1,200 babies already identified, the scandal revealed more than a recurrent regulatory problem, Chinese and foreign experts suggested.
Rather, they said, it pointed to a deeper malaise in Chinese society where private profit often trumps the public good as the country races to create a market economy that has outstripped government regulators.
"China has the problems of any transitional economy," says Yanzhong Huang, a global health expert at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J. "But the deeper and more fundamental challenge China faces is a systematic lack of business ethics."
"You cannot fully police the whole food chain," adds Dali Yang, a politics professor at the University of Chicago. "A lot depends on changes in social norms. People have to recognize that integrity does matter."
Investigators say it appears that milk merchants, selling to Sanlu the raw milk they had bought from farmers, had added the chemical – normally used in plastics and fertilizers – to boost the milk's apparent protein content.
Two brothers who owned a milk collection center in Shijiazhuang, Sanlu's home base, were arrested Monday on charges of adulterating the milk they had sold to the company, the state news agency Xinhua reported. Two additional milk suppliers were also arrested later that day. Seventeen others have been detained, including one man suspected of illegally selling melamine.[...]
Not only did Sanlu fail to detect the melamine in its milk powder, the company has also so far failed to explain why it did not publicly reveal the problem until Sept. 11, although it had received complaints from worried parents as early as last March, and identified the contamination on Aug. 6.
The incident became public only after Sanlu's New Zealand partner, Fonterra, which holds three seats on the company board, informed New Zealand diplomats who told Chinese government officials in Beijing of the problem.
Fonterra has "been trying for weeks to get official recall, and the local authorities in China would not do it," New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark told her country's state TV broadcaster on Monday. "At the local level ... I think the first inclination was to try to put a towel over it."
China, of course, is a Communist nation. But this problem is the sort that could easily happen in a "pure capitalist" nation, the kind where there's no government oversight and only the market is allowed to determine the safety or price of goods.
It's important to remember that corporations exist outside of such labels as "democracy" or "republic" or "communist nation" or "monarchy" or "oligarchy." Multi-national corporations owe no loyalty to the company where they are headquartered, especially if their factories are halfway across the globe and their target market in yet another country, or scattered throughout several countries. And these giant multi-nationals exist for one purpose: to make money.
Sometimes the desire to make money collides with the need to follow local safety regulations, but there will always be someone, somewhere, greedy enough or dishonest enough to ignore corporate policy for the sake of a profit increase.
It would be nice to think such things couldn't happen in America, but they have before, and can again. We may not be able to trust the government all that much, either, but it's better to have a government which is an adversary of big business than a government who is on board with it.
This is something I wish people would remember when they clamor for government run health care. We see time and again in countries like China what happens when the government is on the same side of the cover-up as the business; and health care, though we hate to admit it, is big business in America.
This tragedy in China may be a warning sign of the dangers of letting corporations get too cozy with the government. Even healthcare corporations. Because when it comes to protecting the bottom line, corporations really don't care.