Could It Happen Here?

Published on: 13:27PM Sep 30, 2008

The recent 2008 Olympics were meant to illustrate how far China has come, and how modern it is.  Even as Beijing’s Water Cube and the Bird’s Nest dazzled T.V. viewers in the rest of the world, Chinese children were suffering from poisoned milk – a situation tragically more illustrative of how far China still has to go.


The tentacles from the China dairy scandal continue to reach around the world; read what today’s Washington Post says about how companies that used Chinese dairy ingredients are attempting to prove they are melamine-free. 


In addition to the enormous human cost – four young lives lost and thousands more sickened – this latest Chinese food safety scare (they’ve already had problems with bad infant formula before, and then there was the melamine-laced pet food last year) is sure to change how milk is produced in China in the future.


It also, naturally, begs the question of how vulnerable the U.S. dairy supply may be to a similar situation.  Thankfully, the answer is “not very in the least,” due to the regulations and production practices that are vastly different here in the U.S.


Last week, we posted a summary on the NMPF website that lists some basic facts about how the melamine got into the Chinese milk in the first place.  The bottom line is it was greed, abetted by willful indifference to the consequences of that venality.  Farmers and milk distributors watered down their milk in order to be paid more, the equivalent of a butcher’s thumb on the scale. 


Since more water means less protein – and since protein levels are used as a barometer of the value of the milk – they added melamine, an industrial compound rich in nitrogen, to mask the reduction in protein.  Milk tests for protein actually measure nitrogen, but instead of the nitrogen associated with real dairy protein, what they were actually measuring was melamine.  How long this went on with no oversight, or corrupted oversight, is anyone’s guess.  We may never know.


Here in the U.S., things are different.  This summary from our fact sheet illustrates why no melamine contamination has ever been found in our milk supply:


1. It is illegal to adulterate milk and there are multiple controls that are in place to detect adulteration.


2. Farms are inspected regularly by state regulatory officials who are trained to look for illegal activities.


3. Farms are visited by cooperative field staff often to work with them on milk quality and animal health, so the cooperative would see illegal activities if they were occurring.


4. Water addition to increase volume, with the offsetting addition of a compound like melamine to “fool” tests for protein levels, would be detected in the U.S. (as a reminder, the milk collecting agents in China apparently added melamine to milk to mask reductions in protein levels as the result of watering).


5. The daily volume of milk from a farm is generally consistent, so a sudden increase in volume would be detected and seen as an anomaly unless a significant number of cows were added. This would be investigated to see why it is occurring.


6. The U.S. does not rely on a nitrogen or protein test alone to check milk.


7. Added water would be detected through other tests that melamine would not “fool.” Tests for freezing point and fat levels would detect added water easily.


8. Manufacturers of finished products like cheese, yogurt and milk proteins would see an inconsistency in yields versus volume of milk if water were added and would investigate why the inconsistency was occurring.


After the pet food scandal in China last year settled down, one consequence was that the head of the Chinese food safety agency was executed, for bribery and dereliction of duty.  Will more heads roll this time?  That, much more than the ersatz glamour of the Beijing Olympics, will tell us whether China is really ready to assume a First-World level of responsibility in the 21st century.