China: Baby Formula scandal exposes flaws of the system

The recent tainted milk scandal in China is widening, as more and more irregularities are uncovered. With the introduction of the market come “market methods”, even if this means putting at risk children’s lives.

Two children have already died, and the number that has fallen sick has now risen to 1253. The Chinese company Shijiazhuang Sanlu Group, which is responsible for releasing the product onto the market, is suspected of attempting to cover up the contamination after it was discovered. They are now trying to divert attention away from themselves by blaming individual family farmers of contaminating the milk by watering it down and adding the chemical melamine in order for it to pass through quality checks. The addition of melamine can make the protein level in dairy products appear higher than it is. Whatever the truth of the situation is, it would seem clear that what is at the bottom of all this the profit motive that drives capitalism.

The Sanlu group seem more than happy to blame individual small scale producers for the crisis, while so far providing no real evidence to support this claim. It is much more convenient for them to blame the small peasants than to have public anger directed against private and state enterprises, bringing up the questions of corruption and the dangers that flow from privatization. However, assuming that such an accusation is true, what is it that would drive small peasants to such an extreme as to endanger the lives of untold numbers of babies? Desperate conditions cause desperate actions. A question however that should really be asked is, why did one of the largest dairy companies in the country not have adequate quality checks? Why did the government let these products onto the market, and why did it take so long before a recall was actually issued?

The Sanlu group is a part state owned, part private enterprise with the Fonterra Cooperative Group, a New Zealand dairy exporter, owning 43% of the shares. Being one of the largest companies in Hebei, and one of the largest dairy companies in the country, one would assume that it would be able to afford the most up to date quality assurance equipment available. However, this was not the case. It was only after the company began receiving complaints as early as May that it decided they should cover themselves and order in foreign equipment. They could of course have already had this equipment, but decided to save on the expense until after the problems had already begun. Had the company been socially owned and run by the workers, such recklessness with public safety would not have occurred, especially when young children's lives are in question.

The government was supposed to have implemented a new food and safety regime after the pet food incident less than a year ago, but it would seem that nothing has changed. It is now coming to light that the government also had knowledge well before the recall was issued. Health officials in Gansu province reported that children who had consumed the baby formula were contracting a rare kidney ailment, but the government did not conduct a food safety investigation after receiving these reports. Since corruption among bureaucrats is rampant, it is not far fetched to think that the company simply gave them a bribe to avoid the inspection of formula they already knew was contaminated.

The unplanned capitalist economy, which has been put in place and is supported by the government, is largely responsible for the food and product safety issues which plague China. Capitalists seeking to enlarge their profits at the expense of working people and their families' lives is the reason for these unnecessary tragedies. If these companies were socially owned and controlled by the workers, they would not allow such conditions to exist, because it is their families that are at stake. They would insist on the highest quality for their families and would make sure products were safe for use. The government corruption, which also plays a big part in all this, must end, but it can only end through a system of workers' democracy, where officials are elected and accountable to the people and where they receive no special benefits for their positions.