About 13,000 children remained hospitalized in China last week after developing kidney stones from milk powder tainted by melamine. This recent scandal, with well-known Sanlu brand at its center, once again exposes the trouble in the nation's food safety.
According to Xinhua News Agency, the milk powder contamination sandal clearly shows the deficiency of the Kjeldahl nitrogen determination method that is adopted by dairy quality inspection institutes throughout the country. The method is unable to identify whether the high protein content of tested food samples is natural or the result of certain toxic chemicals, such as melamine. Relevant government departments are reportedly working out a standard method for determining melamine content in food.
This move may help to rebuild the consumer confidence in China's food safety. However, we must have a clear idea that the improvement of food safety is not as easy as renewing the safety standards following accidents. If the renewal of safety standards always follows accidents, then there must be serious loopholes in the current food safety guarantee system. The new standards and stricter safety inspections are expected to soon eliminate melamine from dairy products and all other foods. But how to prevent hazardous materials, which are not on the current blacklist, from contaminating food in the future?
Compared with China's booming economy in the past few decades, the development of its social ethics is rather slow. Many enterprises, which were founded or became entrenched in the underdeveloped market environment of initial years of reform, have failed to instill sound corporate ethics and the sense of responsibility. Maintaining the vicious "money worship," they spare no effort to maximize economic profits at the cost of public interests. To quickly improve China's food safety situation, the government must take active measures to keep enterprises practicing strict self-discipline and supervise them to rebuild their corporate ethics.
More importantly, the current food safety guarantee system must be improved or even reinstated to ensure food producers are under effective scrutiny. In addition to enforcing existing state statutes, the quality watchdog should also focus on potential loopholes in the supervisory system in order to eliminate all public health risks before they break out. For this purpose, China needs not only constantly updated quality standards, but also complete health risk pre-assessment mechanisms and a "zero tolerance" approach to deal with any possible problems. Soon after the milk powder contamination was exposed, the Chinese Government scrapped a regulation that exempts famous food brands from quality inspections because it proved to have greatly weakened the already fragile food safety firewall.
China's entire dairy industry is now in a deep crisis. Despite the huge estimated economic losses, the government and industry insiders need to examine the causes of this scandal and draw subsequent lessons from it, instead of resorting to crisis management as a last resort.