Chinese Milk Scandal 'Hushed Up'
It has been reported that the Chinese authorities silenced the media from reporting and investigating on the tainted milk that has caused the deaths of at least 4 children in the country. It did so in view of the Beijing Olympics and to prevent China's reputation from being damaged before the games.
BEIJING: A Chinese company at the centre of the tainted milk scandal had asked for government help to cover up the extent of the problem, state media said yesterday in the newest development in the widening scandal.
According to the People's Daily, Shijiazhuang city government spokesman Wang Jianguo said the Sanlu Group had asked for help in 'managing' the media response to the case when local authorities were first told of the issue on Aug 2. This was six days before the Olympic Games opened in Beijing.
The latest food safety problem, involving the addition of the industrial chemical melamine to milk to cheat in quality tests, has caused public outrage and put the spotlight back on deficiencies in industry oversight and weak regulatory bodies.
President Hu Jintao has urged companies to strengthen management and food safety checks while Premier Wen Jiabao has vowed to work to restore the country's reputation.
China has said the city government in Shijiazhuang, home to Sanlu, whose contaminated milk sparked a recall and product bans worldwide, sat on a report from the company about the tainting for more than a month, while Beijing hosted the Games. 'Please can the government increase control and coordination of the media, to create a good environment for the recall of the company's problem products,' the People's Daily cited the letter from Sanlu as saying.
'This is to avoid whipping up the issue and creating a negative influence in society,' it added.
This week, Reporters Without Borders said Beijing had ordered news of the scandal hushed up ahead of the Olympics. 'Several Chinese journalists have said that it is becoming more and more obvious that the authorities in July prevented an investigation into the toxic milk coming out so as not to tarnish China's image before the Olympics,' it said in a statement.
An editor at a respected southern China newspaper said that as early as July one of his reporters was investigating how milk powder might have been to blame for children developing kidney stones and falling seriously sick.
'As a news editor, I was deeply concerned because I sensed that this was going to be a huge public health disaster,' Southern Weekend news editor Fu Jianfeng wrote on his blog. 'But I could not send any reporters out to investigate. Therefore, I harboured a deep sense of guilt and defeat at the time.' The entry was later removed.
Thousands of children fell ill after drinking the milk, and the first of four children died on May 1, more than four months before the scandal broke.
China has a poor record when it comes to ignoring or glossing over bad news. In 2003, it initially tried to cover up the spread of the respiratory disease Sars. But Mr Wang, who did not say whether the city government complied with the media control request, defended the actions of his colleagues, who he said did send a team at once to probe Sanlu and to look for those suspected of adulterating the milk.
'Yet it was not until Sept 9 that it was reported to the Hebei provincial government,' the People's Daily said, referring to the province where Shijiazhuang is situated.
Beijing has already fired several Shijiazhuang officials, including the city's Communist Party chief, for the attempted cover-up.
Mr Wang said the city government had not considered the consequences of their actions.
'We mistakenly thought that taking necessary measures and raising product quality could mitigate the effect and reduce losses,' he said. Instead, it 'caused much harm to people's safety, and seriously affected the image of the Party and the government', he added.
Meanwhile, 15 more Chinese dairy companies were identified yesterday as producing milk products contaminated with melamine after a series of new tests.
Thirty-one samples of Chinese milk powder provided by 20 companies were found tainted with the chemical after new testing was conducted, according to data on China's food safety administration's website. Out of the 20 companies, 15 had not been named after previous testing.
The contaminated samples were mostly milk powder products for adults. The food safety agency said all had been produced before Sept 14, insisting that products made after that date were safe.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE