The Chinese tainted-milk scandal is depriving people of their beloved White Rabbit candies—Tootsie-Roll shaped candies in red, white, and blue wrappers that are emblematic of childhood for Chinese all over the world and to anyone who has been in a Chinese-language class, in which students or teachers inevitably pass around a bag.
That's a facetious way of saying that soon everyone will be checking labels to see whether there's milk in the ingredients list, the way people have learned how many unexpected products have, say, peanuts. Soon consumers will be learning different words that flag milk, like "casein," the way people who are gluten-intolerant have learned a new vocabulary of substances to watch out for.
So far there's no evidence that U.S. products contain milk powder tainted with melamine, a toxic chemical used in plastics (think 1950s tableware) whose nitrogen raises protein levels in tests. But the day isn't far off. Already the FDA has issued warnings to avoid poor White Rabbit, and also Mr. Brown brand instant coffee and tea.
The Chinese government hasn't executed anyone connected with the scandal, which has killed four infants and sickened 53,000 people. But it will have to do something to convince people that it wants to keep its promise last year to crack down on lax inspections and corruption. And a long article this weekend in The New York Times about the reports of sick babies the government squelched in order to avoid negative publicity leading up to the Olympics will only make the world less confident in any food from China they buy.
Not that they'll be able to tell: U.S. laws passed five years ago requiring manufacturers to identify which country ingredients and foods come from have consistently been delayed by companies—particularly meat producers—who call them expensive and cumbersome, and unnecessary because of voluntary compliance and inspection. The limits of voluntary compliance are, of course, self-evident and predictable to everyone except the Bush Administration, as the disease outbreaks from hamburgers and salsa show every few months.
There's a direct link between the pet food that caused fatal kidney problems in cats and dogs last year and the watered-down, tainted milk that has killed four infants and sickened many thousands of people so far, as Marion Nestle points out in her new book, Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine. Dairies and food manufacturers buy milk based on fat and protein levels. Pet food makers buy wheat gluten, a flour derivative, based entirely on protein levels. Even if it's toxic, melamine raises both, and it's cheap. It was tainted wheat gluten that caused the pet deaths.
Nestle's book is a detective story that identifies plenty of perpetrators as well as victims—non-human when she was writing it, but including frequent warnings that the problems wouldn't stop with animals. Did you know that pigs and chickens and farmed fish, including on U.S. and Canadian farms, are fed old and unsold pet food? Nestle didn't either, and a chapter called "More Melamine Eaters: Farm Animals and People" is particularly alarming in light of the day's headlines. (Nestle doesn't speculate on how concerned we should be about buying pork, chicken, and fish; industry says that the possible content of melamine is so small and diluted that there's no chance of sickening adults, who in any case are far less susceptible to harm than infants).