Thursday, October 2, 2008

A sense of deja vu

Oct 1, 2008

By Bee Wilson

THE milk was marketed as pure and wholesome, and it looked fine. How were the mothers to know they were poisoning their babies? It would take thousands of sick children before lawmakers intervened.

China in 2008? No, New York City in 1858. Missing from the coverage of the current Chinese baby formula poisoning, in which more than 53,000 babies have been sickened and at least four have died, is how often it has happened before. The disaster unfolding now in China is eerily similar to the 'swill milk' scandal that rumbled on in New York for several decades in the 19th century.

In a city growing fast, it was hard to provide sufficient milk. Fresh milk was brought in, but not enough to meet demand. In 1853, about 85,000 litres of cow's milk entered the city each day, but that number mysteriously increased to 115,000 litres at the point of delivery.

Some of the increase was due to New York dairymen padding their milk with water, and then restoring its richness with flour - just like their latter-day Chinese counterparts, who increased the protein levels in watered-down milk by adding the noxious chemical melamine. But the greater part was swill milk - a filthy, bluish substance milked from cows in crowded stables adjoining city distilleries and fed the hot alcoholic mash left from making whiskey. This, too, was doctored - with plaster of Paris to take away the blueness; starch and eggs to thicken it; and molasses to give it the buttercup hue of milk. This vile fluid caused the deaths of up to 8,000 children a year.

In China, newsmen knew of the poison milk, but were not allowed to spread the news due to the Olympics. It has been only four years since China's last baby formula scandal, when fraudsters in Anhui manufactured fake formula from sugar and starch, killing at least 13 babies.

In the case of swill milk, the New York dairymen had been informed for decades that their milk was unsafe. As early as 1842, a temperance crusader named Robert Hartley warned that city milk could be catastrophically tainted. Throughout the 1850s, newspapers published exposes of the distillery dairies. Some of the cows were so diseased from their alcoholic diet that their teeth rotted and their tails fell off. Finally, in 1858, Tammany Hall sent Alderman Michael Tuomey to 'investigate' a notorious swill milk dairy. He sat down with the dairy owners and drank a glass or two of whiskey. He concluded that swill milk was just as good for children as ordinary milk, and anyone who refused to drink it simply had a 'prejudice'.

Again, there are echoes of this in China. Beijing had exempted several of the nation's biggest dairies from inspections, one of the reasons the scare spread unchecked from baby formula to yogurt to the whole of the Chinese dairy industry and its exports. This isn't just laissez-faire - it's an approach to the food supply that is so deliberately hands off that it amounts to an invitation to swindling. Heads are rolling now, but too late for the sick babies.

The similarities between China today and New York 150 years ago shouldn't come as a great surprise. Adulteration on such a scandalous scale occurs in societies with a toxic combination of characteristics: a fast-growing capitalist economy coupled with a government unable or unwilling to regulate the food supply. In such get-rich-quick societies, there is a huge temptation to tamper with food. The rewards are instant.

Such scandals are not bad luck. They are symptomatic of a deep failure of politics. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao's hasty gestures - punishing the dairies, forcing the head of the food quality agency to resign - have done nothing to deal with the underlying regulatory vacuum.

In the end, New York milk was cleaned up. It took stronger food laws, better policing, the advent of pasteurisation and the passage of the Food and Drug Act of 1906. It took decades, not months or years. China faces many more food scandals - to add to the recent pesticide-laced dumplings and lard made from sewage - before it reaches the point where its citizens can routinely trust what they eat.

The American food supply is still flawed, as this year's panic over salmonella in produce showed. But it's worth remembering that it has been far worse. China's present is America's past.

The writer is the author of Swindled: The Dark History Of Food Fraud From Poisoned Candy To Counterfeit Coffee.


[Comment: Good to have some historical perspective. It does not of course excuse or legitimise what happened in China, but it is surely a note to China that their problems are not new and if they do not learn from history, they will be doomed to repeat it, and if you can't profit from others mistake, you have to pay for the lessons of your own.]

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