Tainted formula story crawls out of China

Watch carefully as the Chinese media report on the explosive story of tainted baby formula. The most recent break came from Central China Television (CCTV), the government’s official, flagship broadcaster. CCTV reported that an industrial chemical, melamine, has been discovered in milk products–everything from yogurt to ice cream as well as baby formula–from 22 companies nationwide. So far, products from more than 100 companies had been tested. The first company to admit to a problem was Sanlu, the third-largest milk product manufacturer in China. 

The real pressure to chase the story came from New Zealand. Sanlu is 43 percent owned by New Zealand dairy company Fonterra. The company is in a joint venture with state-owned Sanlu, and they announced late last year that they would take the company public later this year. Sanlu was forced to acknowledge the problem after Fonterra told the New Zealand government, which then informed the Chinese government.

A careful reading of the story will explain how China’s media universe operates, including the role of the Central Propaganda Department, the role of the official flagship media, as well as that of the media not tied so closely to the government. And believe it or not, there may be a tie-in to the Olympic Games, too.

In a post from Hong Kong in August, I wrote about the government’s recognition that its media clampdown during the ethnic rioting in Tibet came under criticism from President Hu Jintao. In a closed speech to officials, Hu told the official media to no longer expect to have the government simply shut down a story, but rather to go out and aggressively report the story, and take the lead on reporting it, which is what CCTV has done in this case.

The Olympics tie-in? In August, Kristin Jones and I posted about the 21-point guidelines handed down to Chinese reporters and editors a month or so before the Games. Item number eight on the list read: “All food safety issues, such as cancer-causing mineral water, are off-limits.” Gao Qiang, Health Ministry party secretary, told Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post the government denied it had had covered up the problem to avoid detracting from the Beijing Olympics and said it was a “severe food safety accident.”

Here’s a bit of a timeline on the tainted formula/milk products story: Sanlu did not admit to the contamination problem until September 11, even though there had been complaints on official government Web sites since June. When it first publicly addressed the problem, Sanlu blamed it on counterfeit formula, packaged to look like the real Sanlu product.

The number of children affected has been reported at 1,235 (the number is sure to climb), most with kidney stones apparently caused by the melamine, an industrial chemical banned in the food industry. The chemical is rich in nitrogen and gives false readings of protein in chemical assays. Sanlu blamed some of its suppliers of raw milk, the accused suppliers say they didn’t do it.

The number of arrests–four by this morning, with more sure to come–won’t placate angry parents, nor will the departure of Sanlu’s chairwoman Tian Wenhua, who was fired. She also lost her post as the secretary of the Corporation Committee of the Communist Party–a position of immense prominence in a country with an authoritarian government wedded to a free market economy.

Now that is out in the open, CCTV and the official news agency Xinhua have jumped on the story. It has been one of the top four stories on Xinhua’s Web site for the last 36 hours, though never the top story. And the coverage has played up the government’s response. Typical headlines for what has become a major food safety issue: “Milk powder sent for testing after dozens of babies get sick”; “China starts probe into baby powder milk contamination as more cases reported”; “Health ministry orders better treatment for poisoned milk powder victims”; “China pledges to treat all tainted milk-affected babies.”

South China Morning Post, which operates free of mainland government direction, reported that the story has been bubbling for a few months. Josephine Ma, who has been reporting for the SCMP from Beijing for years, reported yesterday:

Mainland journalists said the first report about the scandal was aired by the metropolitan channel of Hunan cable TV in July after an unusually high number of kidney-stone cases among infants were found in a children’s hospital.

However, the media have been low-key regarding the scandal as they dare not challenge Sanlu, a powerful state-owned enterprise, a mainland journalist said.
But the attention on the Internet became too great to keep the story under wraps. 

According to the Legal Weekly report, a doctor puzzled by the cluster of unusual cases in his hospital blogged about his queries. The doctor concluded that Sanlu milk powder was responsible after he talked to other hospitals.

The story also ran in papers belonging to the Nanfang Daily Group printed in considerably more liberal Guangdong province, as well as Caijing magazine. All media in China must be tied to an official state-approved organization, but Caijing and the Nanfang group have repeatedly led the way on breaking news outside the government’s control, and have been at the forefront of many such breaking stories.

If there is a pattern to be followed expect China’s media, official and unofficial, to continue to report the story. But watch for directives to start coming down from the Central Propaganda Department once the issues become intensely political and consumers begin to express their anger in a coordinated manner. That’s what happened in Sichuan after the devastating May 12 earthquake. Media flooded the area, ignoring the government’s directives, and were only forcibly pulled off the story once the situation became politically tense after mourning parents wanted to know why they had lost so many of their children in what were allegedly shoddily constructed schools.