Posted by: rbbadger | January 23, 2009

The melamine trials

This past year, a great deal of attention was payed to food safety.  First there were the massive protests against the importation of American beef, protests which initially seemed to be centred on the past existence of BSE or Mad Cow Disease in certain American cattle, but later of which showed their true colours in being protests against the government of Lee Myeong-bak, President of the Republic of Korea.  Then, news of another, far more insidious health threat became known.  The chances of dying of Creutzfeld-Jakob disease (human form of BSE) are exceedingly slim, given the FDA’s strict standards.  But even still, we STILL see restaurants advertising that they serve only 100% clean and safe Australian beef or 100% Hanwoo beef from right here in Korea.  While it is good to live in a country where people do have freedom of speech, I rather think that they were protesting against the wrong country’s products.  Much more dangerous things come from China on a regular basis.

Korea imports much of its food supply.  The vast majority of our beef comes from Australia.  Korean beef, very much a symbol of national pride, is horribly expensive in comparison to what comes from America and Australia.  It is very much regulated, much in the same way that the French law provides for the regulation of vineyards.  However, there are still a lot of things that are imported from overseas.  And China is increasingly becoming a source for many of these imports.

There was a major scandal this past year in China regarding tainted milk products which were laced with melamine, a chemical which, taken in sufficient doses, can cause kidney stones.  Many Chinese infants were hospitalised with kidney stones and a number of them died as a result.  Hospitalisations of infants in Hong Kong and Taiwan also occurred.  To play it safe, the KFDA ordered the withdrawal of just about every imported food item made in China.  This included things like Oreos (made by RJR Nabisco Shenzen) and quite a few other snacks besides. 

Unfortunately and lamentably, China does not have a free press.  The media knew about the problems long before they became publicly known.  However, if the journalists dared to act, they could have been imprisoned for illegally revealing state secrets.  The law concerning what constitutes a state secret is amazingly broad and can cover a multitude of offenses.  A Chinese blogger who conducted a review into the structural deficiencies of public schools which lead to their collapse in the horrific earthquakes in Sichuan was arrested on that very charge.  Of course, once these things become known to the western media, the Chinese government very quickly changes its tune and the show trials begin.  A couple of years ago, the head of China’s food and drug safety administration was executed on charges of corruption.  Of course, this all happened long after the foreign media started writing about poisonous toothpaste, toys with lead paint, and other horrifying things which passed through various corrupt agencies of the Chinese government.  And of course, there was the whole SARS scandal.  The Hong Kong media knew of it and reported on it right from the start.  But they were not able to report on its origin, namely Mainland China.  The media there, which knew of SARS, were not at liberty to speak.

The trials have now concluded and two of the people involved have been sentenced to death.  A third man was given a suspended death sentence.  This means that if he shows good behaviour whilst in prison, he will avert a visit to China’s series of anti-ambulances, the lethal injection vans which visit the various prisons in the People’s Republic.  This is the same country, lest we forget, which used to extract a “bullet fee” from the family of the executed.  The former chairwoman of Sanlu Group, manufacturers of the tainted baby formula was sentenced to life imprisonment.

China’s court system has advanced considerably.  Judges now are educated in the law.  Before, they used to just make policemen judges and leave it that.  But from what I gather, an acquittal is near impossible to obtain in a criminal case and you had just better forget about appeals.



  1. That is so sad. They’re such a big country. I wonder if that’s one of their problems. I just feel bad for all those people over there.

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