New York Times

May 5, 2004

Infants in Chinese City Starve on Protein-Short Formula


The containers were sealed in plastic, each filled with baby formula that Zhang Linwei and his wife fed to their tiny daughter. Over time, as the baby ate more formula, her cheeks grew fat as balloons, seemingly a sign of good health. Only later did her parents learn it was a sign of starvation.


Their 5-month-old baby, Rongrong, died last August after doctors told her parents that the low-cost milk powder they had been using was fake.


They and hundreds of other parents here in central China unwittingly bought bad formula, in which nutritional supplements had been replaced with starch or sugar. Nearly 200 other babies, including at least 13 who died, now have what local residents call ''big head disease.''


It is a local scam that has resonated into a nationwide scandal, a cruel reminder of how China's problem with fakes and counterfeits extends far beyond knockoff brand clothes and pirated DVD's. With new products filling shelves, consumer protection is often nonexistent, particularly in the poorest regions, which often become dumping grounds for cheap, unregulated goods.


Food safety is a recurring problem, with regular reports of poisonings at school cafeterias and restaurants. Yet the baby formula scandal has become blaring news in this nation of doting parents because of its predatory, venal quality: manufacturers, unhindered by government, reaped profits by marketing useless powder for infants.


''At the hospital, when I learned they couldn't save my baby I couldn't help crying,'' Mr. Zhang said. ''These babies are really innocent. Whatever you give them to eat and drink, they will take it.''


The scandal was publicized in a report on state television on April 19, and the next day Prime Minister Wen Jiabao sent a special investigation team here. Officials arrested at least 22 people involved in making and selling the formula.


Investigators blamed illegal manufacturers throughout China for the problem and reported that 45 brands sold in Fuyang and elsewhere were substandard. But as the government-controlled news media hailed Beijing's response, another fact became known. Reports of the problem had been percolating in Fuyang for almost a year without any significant action being taken. A few parents like Mr. Zhang had even pressed local disease control officials to test packets of formula. His packet contained only 2 percent protein; the national standard is about 12 percent.


Yet officials here in Anhui Province did not remove the fake formula from the stores until April, after Prime Minister Wen ordered his investigation, according to local parents and national media reports. What is unclear is whether local officials knowingly allowed the powder to be sold, perhaps for kickbacks. Officials in Fuyang declined repeated telephone requests for interviews.


''Poor government administration is a key here,'' said Zhang Shouli, a rural affairs advocate and market researcher who has traveled around Fuyang. ''Unless the government steps in, there are always people who will produce those products.''


Located in the impoverished wheat belt of central China, Fuyang is a gritty railroad center with a reputation for corruption and little government oversight. A former mayor was recently executed on charges of corruption, including taking bribes. A local airport built at enormous cost sits virtually unused.


The city also has many wholesale markets selling illegal or substandard products. Zhang Linwei, the father, lives in one of the villages outside Fuyang, where he earns about $60 a month making bricks at a kiln.


His daughter Rongrong was born in March 2003, and since his wife, Liu Li, could not produce enough breast milk, he began spending about $11 a month on formula. They chose a low-cost brand recommended by a friend, and his daughter consumed a container every two or three days.


But when Rongrong was 4 months old she developed skin rashes, and her face swelled. Alarmed, Mr. Zhang and his wife took her to an unlicensed doctor, who did little.


They tried another brand of formula, but the baby refused to eat it. Two weeks later they took her to the main hospital in Fuyang, where doctors say her body was so underdeveloped that they could not find a usable vein for a transfusion.


''The doctor said the baby had malnutrition due to milk powder,'' Mr. Zhang recalled. After a week in the hospital, doctors told him to take her home. She died the next day.


''She didn't grow,'' Mr. Zhang said. ''From birth to death she had almost no increase in weight.''


Ms. Liu, the mother, collapsed in shock when her daughter died. ''I'm very sad,'' she said. ''I didn't know this milk was bad.''


The problem is concentrated in Fuyang, but sick babies have also been reported in Beijing and in the southern city of Guangzhou. Government news media reported that a spot check of baby formula in stores in populous Guangdong Province had found that 33 percent of the brands did not meet national standards. Some brands tested in Fuyang had less than 1 percent protein.


The scandal has already brought calls for greater regulation, and the official news media have reported that China's highest prosecutorial agency intends to open a nationwide investigation of rampant counterfeit products.


But such initiatives would require a level of accountability that is often lacking. An immediate problem, exposed during the outbreaks of SARS and avian influenza, is that China's Food and Drug Administration has little real regulatory power.


A nationwide survey last year of 2,000 food products found that almost 20 percent did not meet national health standards. In March, the state news media reported that of the 106,000 food companies in China, only 17,900 were licensed.


Most of all, consumers rarely feel empowered to complain.


''Local farmers and peasants don't know to pursue their rights,'' said Gao Zheng, a local resident whose persistent efforts to push officials in Fuyang helped publicize the scandal.


Mr. Gao, whose infant niece was hospitalized last year, said he had to pay for local officials to test his baby formula and prove it was fake. Earlier this year, he said, a local consumer protection official arranged for a series of meetings with a baby formula distributor to discuss reimbursing. But he said the meetings had been fruitless.


Outside the main People's Hospital in Fuyang, Zhu Wen, a migrant worker, waited with his wife and their infant son. The baby's head was swollen from months of taking Good Baby milk formula.


The father said the child's hair had fallen out and pointed to the scaly, irritated skin on his son's scalp. He used Good Baby because it cost half the price of other brands.


''These companies are taking advantage of our poverty,'' Mr. Zhu said in a later interview away from the hospital. ''They should be punished or executed.''


He said his family was still paying off other medical debts and could not afford to take their son to a hospital when he first became sick. This week they went to People's Hospital because of reports that sick babies would receive free care. But he said doctors had told him he must pay $120, almost two months' wages.


He was waiting to see if someone would help him. If not, he said his only recourse would be to return home.


 Last Updated: Thursday, 22 April, 2004, 09:48 GMT 10:48 UK  


 E-mail this to a friend   Printable version  


China 'fake milk' scandal deepens



Malnourishment leaves some infants' heads appearing large

A baby milk scandal which has killed at least 13 infants in China appears to be widening.

State television says infants who were fed fake formula have been treated for malnutrition in a second province.


An investigation is under way, and police in Anhui province have already detained five wholesalers of fake baby milk, according to Xinhua news agency.


Around 200 babies in Anhui alone were fed formula milk of little nutritional value, media reports said.



An initial inquiry has shown that 45 types of substandard powder were on sale in Fuyang City, Anhui, produced by 141 factories across China, Xinhua said.



Chinese television said fake powder and malnourished babies were also found in the neighbouring province of Shandong.


Reporters there found 10 brands of fake milk powder on sale.


State media reported that at least 13 infants had died as a result of the scam, though there are fears that more deaths could yet be reported.


Doctors say the baby milk scandal is responsible for the worst malnourishment they have seen in 20 years.


Local media in Fuyang printed pictures of one six-month-old baby boy who weighed less than he did at birth.


They said some of the babies developed what doctors called "big head disease", where infants' heads appear abnormally large in comparison to their bodies.



It was not clear if the counterfeit powder included any toxic ingredients, but some children were reported to have died within three days of being fed the fake milk.


An analysis of one formula found it contained as little as one-sixth the required amount of protein and other nutrients needed for a baby's proper development, reports said.


Local authorities have now announced they will give free medical treatment to the surviving babies.


A BBC correspondent in Beijing, Louisa Lim, says counterfeit goods are often on sale in rural areas, where supervision is slack and customers poorly informed.


But in this case the human cost of this get-rich-quick scheme has sparked widespread anger.


Our correspondent says an investigation will be held into why the Fuyang city government failed to act despite knowing about the problem last May.


China recalls toxic baby milk


By Louisa Lim

BBC correspondent in Beijing  




Health authorities in the Chinese city of Guiyang have said they are recalling more than 9,000 bags of highly toxic milk powder.

More than 150 children in the south-western province of Guizhou were poisoned earlier this month by drinking the formula.


This is not the first scandal involving sub-standard milk powder.


Two months ago, at least 12 babies starved to death in eastern Anhui province, after drinking fake formula with no nutritional value.


Tests on the Guiyang powder showed it contained the golden staphylococcus toxin, which can cause heart fever and even death.


The state-run China Daily newspaper said the company was repackaging old milk powder as fresh formula in order to cheat customers.


The firm has now had its licence taken away and been fined $24,000.


This case is a shocking example of how profit seems to take precedence over all else in the new market-oriented China.


It follows a national outcry over the case in Anhui in April, when hundreds of babies were fed fake infant formula.


That another case should happen on the other side of the country indicates just how common scandals involving sub-standard foodstuffs are.


Many critics also blame local corruption.


In some cases officials knew of the complaints about the products, but failed to take any action, sometimes costing human lives.


Return to China from the Inside page