The World Health Organization calls the melamine milk crisis in China
one of the largest food safety events the UN health agency has had to
deal with in recent years. It says the milk scare has created a crisis
of confidence among Chinese consumers, which will be hard to overcome.
Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from WHO headquarters in Geneva.
World Health Organization reports more than 54,000 children in
China have sought medical treatment, 12,000 are hospitalized and
at least four infants have died from melamine-contaminated dairy
WHO says it only learned about these toxic products on
September 11. By then, it says they had been marketed to Chinese
consumers for months, turning this food safety scare into a global
WHO Food Safety Scientist, Peter Ben Embarek, says the
ball started to roll as soon as WHO was informed of the crisis. He
says swift action was taken to recall all contaminated products on the
market. He says the Chinese authorities have been providing regular
updates and cooperating in every way.
He says all of these
products are going through intensive testing so what is on the shelf in
China is now probably safe. He says the Chinese have tested tens of
thousands of products over the last few weeks.
"So you can be
sure that what is on the shelf is by-in-large coming from a safe
source," said Embarek. "They also are importing increasingly foreign
products that have also been tested and also ensure that they come from
production systems with safe ingredients. All of these measures should
reassure parents that what is now on the shelf is safe."
Embarek acknowledges it will take a lot of time and patience to restore
confidence among consumers who feel abused and cheated.
is used in making plastics and is high in nitrogen, which makes
products appear to have more protein content. In small amounts it is
harmless. But, sustained use can cause kidney stones and renal
failure, especially among children.
The chemical has been
found in other dairy products as well. The Chinese maker of the
popular White Rabbit Candy, made from milk, stopped domestic and
foreign sales of the candy after finding melamine.
has been found in Hong Kong, New Zealand and Singapore. A growing
number of countries are barring imports of Chinese products containing
Embarek attributes much of the problems to, what he calls,
the incredible pace in the development of food, agricultural, and
industrial production in China over the past few decades. He says the
agencies in charge of setting the rules and monitoring food safety in
the private sector are not developing at the same pace.
that opened the gates and the door to all kind of, I would say,
misbehavior and incidents and criminal and intentional acts like we
have seen in this case," said Embarek. "The large scale of this event
ensures that it was clearly not an isolated accident. It was a
large-scale intentional activity to deceive consumers for simple,
basic, short-term profits."
The World Health Organization says
the industry in China and elsewhere has to adopt the culture of food
safety. It says countries must strengthen their food control and
food-borne disease surveillance systems. It says this could minimize
food safety crises such as the dairy scandal in China.