September 15, 2008 – 4:41PM
Did Chinese authorities put off a decision to issue a nationwide recall of contaminated milk powder in August, that has since claimed the lives of two babies, for the sake of the Olympics?
That is one conclusion being drawn after it was revealed that Sanlu, the Chinese company that produced and sold the tainted powder was advised to issue a recall as far back as August 2 – six days before the opening of the Beijing Olympics.
That was the day Fonterra, the New Zealand co-operative which owns a minority stake in Sanlu, said it was both informed about the contamination and advised the Sanlu board to make a full recall.
"From the day that we were advised of the product contamination issue in August, Fonterra called for a full public recall of all affected product," the company said in statement issued on Sunday.
A full recall of 700 tonnes of the tainted milk powder, which was found to contain traces of the chemical melamine, was made only on September 11 – six weeks after the alarm was raised.
Melamine, a white powdery substance in its raw form, is used in the manufacture of fabric, glue, housewares and flame retardants.
Chinese health authorities are reporting that almost 500 babies have fallen ill after drinking the tainted milk.
More than 430 of the affected children – many of whom come from families living in impoverished regions of the country – are suffering from kidney stones caused by the chemical.
Exactly why the alarm was not raised before last week is still unclear. Neither Fonterra nor Sanlu are answering questions.
Fonterra has issued a statement saying it was not in a position to make any further comments about the case as an investigation was under way.
In the lead-up to the Olympics, China’s Central Propaganda Department issued a 21-point directive to the local media, detailing the ground rules for reporting during the Games.
It included no-go zones such as pro-independence movements in Tibet and the restive Muslim province of Xinjiang and regional territorial disputes, but also included instructions on how to report sporting successes modestly.
The existence of the list was first reported by the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s leading English-language newspaper.
But it was The Sydney Morning Herald’s Jacquelin Magnay who obtained an English translation of the directive and published it on August 14.
Point 8 of the directive states: "All food safety issues, such as cancer-causing mineral water, is off-limits."
Chinese authorities subsequently denied such a directive existed.
China regularly issues directives on news coverage.
In 2005, the Chinese journalist Shi Tao was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment for leaking details of a similar directive to local media on how to cover the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
Chinese authorities say 19 people have been detained and 78 are being questioned over the contamination scandal.
Sanlu is China’s biggest milk-powder producer and one of the country’s "big six" Chinese dairies.
The official English-language China Daily newspaper today quotes Li Changjiang, minister of the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, saying that investigations were focusing on milk collecting stations.
The 19 detained people held in connection with the case were from private milk collecting stations, he said.
– with agencies