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Little comfort in milk scandal verdicts

By Quentin Sommerville
BBC News, Shijiazhuang

Sanlu HQ in Shijiazhuang
The slogan on Sanlu's HQ speaks of "serving the people" with "quality products"

At Sanlu's headquarters, in the grimy city of Shijiazhuang, most of the signs have been removed from company buildings.

The large Chinese characters are missing; only the skeletal frame remains.

But the company slogan still stands tall. "Make quality milk products, serve the people", it proclaims in Chinese and English.

Sanlu, and its executives, failed on both counts.

Court papers showed that the company first began receiving complaints of children becoming sick after drinking its milk, back in December 2007.

Sanlu was slow to react, but by May 2008 it knew the milk it was selling was poisonous. Still the milk kept flowing, and it was only until the company's foreign partner blew the whistle that production stopped, and the arrests started.

Anger

Parents were horrified. Sanlu was one of the country's most trusted brands - its pack came with an official seal of approval.

Some 300,000 children became sick, and at least six died, because of kidney stones and complications, caused by the toxic chemical melamine. As the scale of the problem became apparent, anger spread.

It was only four years since the last baby-milk scandal, when at least 13 children died after being fed fake baby powder that had no nutritional value. They died of malnutrition - their swollen bellies disguising that they were starving to death.

Then, as now, the government promised action, and pledged that such a thing would never happen again.

Even with today's verdicts - two sentenced to death and Sanlu's boss imprisoned for life - few parents feel that justice has been done.

Routine practice

Liu Donglin, the father of one child made sick from drinking contaminated milk, said: "They got the penalty they deserved, but I feel sorry about this whole affair.

Huo Hongxi, dairy farmer
I've been in many milking sheds, and they all did the same. They added all kinds of stuff into milk
Huo Hongxi
Milk farmer
"I think they are scapegoats. The milk producers' association and the people in charge of checking the milk should also be punished."

It emerged that melamine was being added routinely to milk across China. And it wasn't just Sanlu - in all, 22 companies were selling contaminated milk.

But not a single government official or health inspector has been charged with wrongdoing. And only Sanlu's executives have been prosecuted.

The scandal led to product recalls across the globe, and further damaged China's reputation for producing safe and reliable products.

Public accountability and openness is rare in China. Some parents allege that companies and local officials covered up the scandal to prevent causing embarrassment in advance of last summer's Beijing Olympics.

'My rights'

With public outrage growing, the government has moved quickly to draw a line under the affair, even detaining the parents of sick children.

Zheng Shuzhen, grandmother of a baby who died after drinking tainted milk, cries outside the Intermediate People's Court in Shijiazhuang, Hebei province, on Thursday
Along with the pain, there is outrage
Dong Shiliang, whose son became sick after drinking Sanlu milk, was detained by the authorities when he tried to fly to Shijiazhuang to hear Thursday's verdict.

"As a victim of the milk scandal I think I have every right to see what the verdict is from the trial. We want to see the criminals punished," he said.

"I can't understand why the government has prevented us from going to the sentencing. We're not trying to make trouble. They have absolutely no reason to control our personal freedom," he added.

The Zhengding Sanjiao Village Collective Milk Farm is typical of the small farms which supplied Sanlu with its milk.

Some 16 families keep around 300 cows in brick pens, centred around a common milking shed.

Huo Hongxi has been farming for about seven years. He said chemicals had been added to milk for years.

"I've been in many milking sheds, and they all did the same. They added all kinds of stuff into milk to meet the quality standards. Their milk was turned down by other companies, but accepted by Sanlu," he said.

Lack of inspection

He never added melamine, he said, but he saw others do it to thicken thin milk.

"In the summer we milk the cows three times a day instead of two, but they drink a lot of water then, so the protein content didn't meet company standards," he said. But when melamine was added, it did.

Dairy cow at the Zhengding Sanjiao Village Collective Milk Farm
Farmers say adding chemicals to milk is common
Sanlu seldom visited his cows or those of the 15 other farmers, with whom he shares a communal milking shed. Health inspectors were rarely seen.

China's government says that milk is now safe. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao gave a rare public apology for failing to prevent the crisis.

But families of the victims are weary of another food scandal, and more hollow reassurances - they have little faith in the country's food safety systems.

Sanlu has filed for bankruptcy and police cars sit outside its headquarters. Beside that sign that promises quality, a new red banner has been added.

"Learn the lesson, face reality, and let's unite and regroup for a new life", it proclaims.

But as another food scandal passes, as the parents of more dead children are paid off, few lessons appear to have been learned. And yet again China's government has failed in a most basic duty - to provide safe food for its people.



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