[hepr-vn] China's dairy industry took deadly shortcuts to growth
vern.weitzel at gmail.com
Fri Jan 9 09:55:28 EST 2009
DISPATCH FROM XINGTANG, CHINA
China's dairy industry took deadly shortcuts to growth
Wu Hong / European Pressphoto Agency
A cattle farm in the eastern Chinese city of Jimo. Milk and other dairy products
weren’t popular before the 1990s.
Milk was an unpopular product only a generation ago, and then business
executives and the government pushed its consumption. Some couldn't compete and
By Barbara Demick
January 8, 2009
Reporting from Xingtang, China -- Like many Chinese peasants of his generation,
53-year-old Wang Zhengnian had never seen a cow until he reached adulthood. He
certainly never drank a glass of milk.
The fact that Wang now spends his days tending 400 cows on a farm near Beijing
says a lot about the way China created a dairy industry out of thin air. But in
their haste, the Chinese made mistakes that left six babies dead and hundreds of
thousands ill from tainted milk.
Milk is not part of the traditional Chinese diet. Most Chinese adults are
lactose-intolerant and many are repelled by the smell of dairy products.
But in the 1990s, economic planners decided that dairy cows were a quick way to
improve rural incomes, particularly in northern provinces such as Hebei, Inner
Mongolia and Heilongjiang with cool climate, flat terrain and lack of other
economic prospects. To encourage consumption, the propaganda machine spread the
word that children needed to drink milk to grow as strong and tall as Westerners.
In a landscape that looks more Rust Belt than Dairy Belt, people opened farms in
patches of land between derelict factories and villages.
"Cows have been good for us," Wang said as he whistled for his herd to come in
for milking last week in Xingtang County, 170 miles southwest of Beijing. "The
business is bad right now because of the scandal, but it was great before."
The now-bankrupt dairy producer Sanlu Group, headquartered in Shijiazhuang,
capital of Hebei, was a big reason for the success. Company Chairwoman Tian
Wenhua was a Communist Party official, but also a reformer. She now faces life
imprisonment for covering up the scandal over Sanlu's tainted milk.
To make the dairy industry more efficient and spread the wealth, she encouraged
peasants to raise cows. A dairy cow costs about $1,200, and those who couldn't
afford them got loans. If they didn't qualify for a loan, they acquired their
cows on a rent-to-own plan.
At the time of communist China's founding in 1949, the country had about 100,000
dairy cattle, many of them descendants of cows introduced by Christian
missionaries. By last year, there were an estimated 14 million. Most were in the
hands of small-scale dairy farmers who kept only a few, milking them by hand and
selling the product at a milking station, which resold it to large companies.
As Tian was promoting production, the government was pushing domestic consumption.
"I have a dream," Premier Wen Jiabao said during a 2006 visit to a dairy farm,
"that every person in China, especially the children, could afford to buy 1 jin
[about a pint] of milk every day."
People who once gagged at the smell of cheese now ate pizza. Busy office workers
in Beijing and Shanghai got into the habit of buying yogurt at 7-Eleven, instead
of traditional food like rice porridge. Women rushing back into the work force
after childbirth were proud that they could afford baby formula.
From 1998 to 2007, domestic consumption increased fivefold and China became the
fastest-growing producer in the world. But farmers were still amateurs when it
came to raising dairy cows.
Chinese peasants lacked experience with the animals, said Chen Yu, a professor
at a think tank affiliated with the Agriculture Ministry. "They didn't have the
right food for dairy cows. They didn't understand the technology of milking or
The milk business started to become challenging in 2006. Prices for feed spiked,
while milk prices were kept down by government controls and cutthroat
competition. Sanlu paid dairy farms less than 7 cents per pint of milk.
At the bottom of the supply chain, many farmers who had sold their homes or
borrowed money to buy their cows now slaughtered the animals for money. Or they
The most common way was to water down the milk and use additives to conceal it.
Melamine, which is used in making plastics and not intended for human
consumption, allows diluted milk to pass quality tests for protein. Although it
was known to cause kidney stones and had been banned from pet food, milk dealers
preferred it to food additives like hydrolyzed animal protein because it was
tasteless and odorless.
Inside a nondescript Xingtang storefront, former dairy company employee Xue
Jianzhong opened a shop in 2007 to sell what he called "protein powder." It was
in fact a concoction of melamine and malt dextrin that had been created by local
chemist Zhang Yanjun, prosecutors said. Over the next nine months, they sold
$180,000 worth of the powder -- 110 tons.
By the time China's food regulators busted the Xingtang gang and others like it
around the country, six babies were dead or dying and hundreds of thousands were
barbara.demick at latimes.com
Eliot Gao of The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.
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