Caixin
Dec 27, 2011 07:01 PM

Questions Remain Over Mengniu Milk Scandal, Experts Say

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Although China's largest milk company has admitted to excess levels of cancer-causing agents in its products, industry experts say the company has yet to offer a full explanation for how the mistake occurred in the first place.

Food safety regulators on December 26 told Xinhua News Agency that mildewed feed had created high amounts of aflatoxin M1—a liver cancer-causing agent—in a batch of China Mengniu Dairy Co. boxed milk products. Mengniu said the tainted milk never hit the shelves.

Wet weather was the culprit, Mengniu Vice President Lu Jianjun said, adding that the company did not detect excessive levels of aflatoxin M1 because "the plant's quality inspector made a big mistake."

China Dairy Association Executive Director Wang Dingmian said he found Lu's explanation unconvincing, and that he doubted whether Mengniu had done any testing for the cancer-causing agent.

"Milk quality inspection is supposed to be extremely rigorous," said Wang. "With a problem like this, could a single act of 'negligence' explain it away?"

Wang told Caixin that although aflatoxin M1 testing equipment costs between 4,000 and 6,000 yuan per unit, many milk companies never follow through with testing for the carcinogen. They do this "in order to save trouble and reduce workloads," Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences Researcher Liu Qingsheng said.

China's General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine on December 24 said it had detected excess levels of aflatoxin M1 in a batch of boxed milk products produced October 18 in Mengniu's Meishan plant, located in Sichuan Province. It made the discovery as part of a routine survey covering 200 dairy products produced by 128 companies across 21 provinces.

Classified by the World Health Organization as a carcinogen, aflatoxin M1 can cause severe liver damage in both humans and animals.

It is not the first time Mengniu has made headlines for tainted products. In November, food inspectors in Guangdong Province announced that they had found high levels of bacteria in Mengniu's ice cream products. In April, 251 students in Shaanxi Province became sick after drinking Mengniu milk at their school cafeteria.

Mengniu was also one of the few companies at the center of China's 2008 tainted milk scandal, when authorities discovered the industrial chemical melamine in infant milk formula. The contaminated products resulted in the deaths of six babies, and the hospitalization of another 300,000.

China's food safety regulators told Xinhua News Agency on December 26 that they have ordered local inspectors to toughen inspections for aflatoxin M1 in milk products. They have also mandated companies to test specifically for aflatoxin M1 and strengthen supply-chain management, an official with the food safety watchdog said.

Despite these new efforts, however, the agency admitted that there may still be other problem products floating in the market.

Just because inspectors managed to detect the tainted Mengniu products this time around, the official said, "It doesn't mean that there aren't any problems with other milk products that haven't undergone [government] testing."

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