Milk and Melamine Scandal of 2008

Published on Author inglism17
Gansu Province

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).

Destroying Tainted Dairy Products

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.


Works Cited:

Huang, Yanzhong. “The 2008 Milk Scandal Revisited.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 16 July 2014. Web. <>.
Jacobs, Andrew. “Chinese Release Increased Numbers in Tainted Milk Scandal.” The New York Times. 2 Dec. 2008. Web. <>.
“Questions and Answers on Melamine.” WHO. Web. <>.
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9 Responses to Milk and Melamine Scandal of 2008

  1. There is a long history of milk adulteration in the late 19th century in the US. Before the era of nitrogen tests, about all consumers could do was look at the color and check the smell and taste. In New York City, where dairy farms weren’t a big local industry, Merchants gave into temptation and added various white substances (such as plaster) plus water to milk. Home refrigeration either didn’t exist or consisted only of an icebox, adding to problems. The water used wasn’t boiled after adulteration – extra cost! – resulting in sick babies, lots per year over many years. Households tempted by cheap milk were already skimping on nutrition, and doctors didn’t know how to rehydrate infants, so diarrhea could easily be fatal. We’re not talking 6 fatalities nationwide, we’re talking 100 or more a year in just NYC.

    In other words, this is “normal” for a developing country that does not yet have in place a strong food safety inspection system.

    The move to large food processors actually makes life easier, because it’s easier to inspect a few hundred firms than a few 10,000s of firms. This also makes “true” comparisons across time challenging, because in the old days (including a couple decades ago in the US) tracing food poisoning was hard: tainted product would only affect a handful of consumers, so spotting an outbreak was hard, and with lots of local processors supplying local stores, it was almost impossible to trace the source.

    Newspaper headlines make it sound as though Big Food in the US makes eating less safe. The opposite is surely the case.

    Followup question: so as the food processing industry and food wholesale industry in China evolves, how do the incentives of firms change?

    This post is an exemplar of proper citation. HTML hint: I edited the original post with <div class=”biblio”> source</div> to create a cleaner set of references.

    • Chinese firms must continuously evolve in order to keep up with changing consumer preferences and new regulations. As GDP per capita increases, individuals will demand higher quality goods. As a result, firms must begin to improve their product’s quality, even if it means increasing price or cutting profit margins. In the end, this change will help them build a reliable brand name that people trust and enjoy. Similarly, as China develops, new policies and regulations will be implemented. Firms will eventually have to upgrade their machinery and processes to adhere to these rules. Once again, it is better to lead the way in this process than to lag behind.

  2. Incentives for food firms in China change dramatically with increased regulation and the developing food market. Obviously, fines from regulators are a strong incentive–a firm would have to pay to poison its consumers. Additionally, with emerging companies competing to the its area’s foremost dairy provider, a scandal such as this would surely hinder the chances of a company’s ability to be the “go-to.” This type of story is consistent with the benefits of a “Big Food” structure in the food market.

  3. This raises an important concept on the consumer side that we have yet to examine: trust. The article mentioned the inelasticity of the milk market. There is always a demand, but firms must be hesitant to cut corners when product substitutes are readily available. Once the trust is lost and consumers believe that it is safer to consume substitutes, market share is not readily won back. Interestingly enough, the falling demand for domestic milk products may be beneficial in the long run. As these firms begin to fail, consolidation is inevitable. As the professor mentioned in his reply, it is easier to regulate a small number of firms rather than a large number of firms. Although consumer trust is hard to win back, the Chinese government can artificially quicken this process by imposing tariffs on imported milk goods. However, establishing an effective food safety system is more important as the Chinese economy develops.

  4. I find the milk and melamine scandal to reflect a wider issue that China faces: industries keeping up with increased consumption caused by rapid growth and increasing incomes. We saw this same issue with Sinomaps struggling to keep up with the auto boom and massive road construction in Hessler’s Country Driving. Milk is a relatively new consumer staple good. Therefore, the new high demand put pressure on the dairy industry to keep up with the growing demand. A Beijing-based analyst described the situation as a “medieval farming system serving a product to a 21st century market”.The intensity and speed of growth provided incentive to “cut corners” to serve demand, which I believe is an issue many developing economies face.’s-melamine-scandal

  5. Cutting corners like this is a common theme in a lot of Chinese business practices. Without proper regulation and punishments need to be implemented should companies break these rules and produce a product that ends up being detrimental to health. As milk is a staple in every household, untainted milk should be a right, not a privilege. With China’s large population, companies become desperate to produce more and more. Like with the diapers that we read about earlier in the semester.

  6. I remember when the news come out about Jhons milk, everyone was just really shocked. And nobody thought how much this incident has actually affected the Chinese. There are instant effects of milk, health, children and stuff like that. Everyone is calling out for regulation, but corruption has been a huge problem. After realizing there’s no hope in regulation and surveillance in food security or anything else, Chinese has been relied on foreign goods. Chinese people have more faith in foreign goods than theirs. As the tourism grow, Chinese tourists buys lots of stuff allover the world.

    • There is definitely something to be said about the effect of poisons and other harmful things on children – think Flint, Michigan and its water crisis, or in this example, the Milk and Melamine scandal. Toxins in food or drinks are bad enough, but it seems that when children are the most affected, public outcry is the greatest. It hits home, causing a search for alternatives.

  7. In response to Rainy’s comment, has the Chinese government been making any major steps to encourage overall regulation and surveillance in food and medicine? It seems like a major problem and as China is attempting to increase domestic consumption it looks like something the Chinese government must put importance on so incidents like this don’t occur again and Chinese consumers are able to trust domestic goods.