In 2008, the Gansu province of China faced a domestic dairy crisis. As the New York Times reported back in December of the year, nearly 300,000 infants were sickened by consumption of contaminated milk powder (Jacobs). Of these children that fell ill to the adulteration, six died. The primary symptom was kidney stones.
The culprit was melamine, a substance widely used in plastics and adhesives. The World Health Organization describes why this was intentionally added to milk. It explains that water was added to increase volume. However, reprocessing companies desired higher protein content, so the milk production companies added melamine. Since the protein level tests use nitrogen as an indicator and since melamine is highly nitrogenous and thickening, the substance created false positives.
The milk production companies involved cut corners to increase profits, but evidently this did not work in the long-term. Just three months after the contamination came to light, the China Daily reported that milk exports were down 92 percent (Jacobs). The plan to skirt regulations backfired. Yanzhong Huang, a Forbes contributor, noted the inelasticity of the baby formula market and the resulting market occurrences. Since the Chinese milk was no longer trusted but the demand for it remained, “more than 100 foreign brands flooded into the market” (Huang).
Unsurprisingly, officials have since called for stronger measures that ensure high food quality. The government acknowledged the need for continued improvement in this area, however, in 2013 at the State Council Food Safety Commission when Premier Li stated, “there are still a great deal of outstanding problems and potential hidden dangers; the situation remains grim” (Huang). Going forward, if Chinese food markets hope to regain the trust of the world, regulations must be strong, products must be quality, and scandals like that of milk and melamine of 2008 cannot occur.