By David Bandurski — Given state propaganda controls, hard-hitting coverage of the melamine-tainted milk scandal is now impossible for China’s media. But facts lurking in reports from a handful of Chinese newspapers in recent days beg serious questions about the government’s handling of a scandal China’s leaders want very much to put behind them.
Specifically, there are indications that dairy companies and retailers are now employing aggressive sales promotion campaigns to offload products manufactured in the months before the scandal came to light — products that could be harmful despite government reassurances.
[ABOVE: The October 9, 2008, issue of Nanfang Daily includes coverage of widespread sales campaigns for dairy products in China.]
A report in Thursday’s Information Times newspaper said Mengniu and Yili, two dairy companies at the center of the tainted milk scandal, were pulling ice cream from store shelves in Guangzhou this week. As the report points out, Hong Kong announced back on September 18 that it had found high levels of melamine contamination in eight of thirty products tested from Yili Industrial Group.
What was Hong Kong’s response? First off, the SAR recalled all Yili products, not just those eight types that tested positive for contamination. Here is the rest of the response as reported by the BBC:
“I call on the public not to consume any products of this brand,” said Constance Chan, controller for the territory’s Food Safety Centre.
She added that the government had asked Yili to stop supplying products to Hong Kong.
The Information Times report suggests — although it cannot state so explicitly — that even now, almost a month after the scandal broke, dangerous products are still on shelves in Guangzhou.
The report also lets us now that when Yili ice creams finally were “pulled from shelves” (下架) in Guangzhou this week, they were not being “recalled” (召回) for quality concerns. Instead, Yili representatives told the Information Times, the products were being pulled because the company was carrying out a comprehensive “re-labeling” campaign.
An unnamed “industry insider” speculated to the newspaper that the Mengniu and Yili products were in fact being pulled as a result of the test results announced in Hong Kong. If that is true, why has it taken so long to remove the products? And why, again, are the companies the one’s taking the initiative?
China’s leaders are reassuring the public that milk products are now safe. What does that mean, specifically?
It means that new dairy products — those manufactured after September 14 — are safe, as indicated in this Xinhua story.
That sounds great. But how is it that not ALL products possibly contaminated with melamine have been systemically removed from store shelves across China?
This question looms large between the lines of the Information Daily report, which also describes the aggressive sales campaigns retail chains in Guangzhou are using to get rid of milk products manufactured before the all-important date of September 14.
After describing city-wide retail campaigns slashing prices on dairy products by around 25 percent and offering everything from “buy one case get one free” to “buy one case get three free,” the Information Daily reporters use the voice of a consumer to deliver a key fact:
Even as dairy companies are determined to find a market with strong sales campaigns, the reporter noticed that perhaps no one pulled out money to actually buy. In the space of ten minutes, the reporter saw eight different customers drawn by the “big sale.” But after they looked carefully they lowered their heads and walked away. A Ms. Wu said angrily to the reporter: “These liquid milks were manufactured in July and August, before they even found melamine. Who would buy that? No wonder they’re so cheap!”
For related news on sales campaigns for major milk brands, readers can turn also to this Thursday report from Guangdong’s Nanfang Daily, which quotes one expert as saying the government must be strict in its examination of dairy inventories that are coming out of store rooms after weeks of dismal sales.
Given the practical limitations of product testing and the fact that problems are known to have been widespread (thousands of milk collection stations across China were suspected of contamination), it is impossible for the government to suggest that products on shelves are safe in lieu of effective recalls.
Responding to the Information Times story on QQ.com, Web users expressed anger and frustration:
Putting problem milk out there on sale. Ha! “Meng”niu is right! ["Meng", “蒙”, is a synonym for "cheat"]. But it seems you can’t cheat those you’d like.
I went to the supermarket to look for myself, and most of the milk products are from before September. And they say nothing contains melamine now. Who would believe that?
From Hezhou City:
Mengniu still has the nerve to say it’s “changing out its packaging.” Mengniu, Mengniu, you cheated once and still you’re still going strong.
If Hong Kong hadn’t discovered problems in its inspections, I don’t think you [companies] would ever have come clean!
These products are just now being recalled? Didn’t Hong Kong find problems with them earlier?
Look at how much time has passed, and still they talk about “urgently” [removing these products].
Over the last week in Guangzhou, on North Guangzhou Avenue (Meihua Garden) [广州大道北(梅花园)], there’s been a store holding a huge sale on problem milk!! Mengniu, Sanlu are all on sale. This store is called Happy Purchase (乐购).
I want Yili, Mengniu and all the rest to go bankrupt! I’m staunchly against them!
I suppose you could buy it for bathing, or for washing your feet.
UPDATE (October 14, 2008):
“China recalls all dairy products over one month old: state press,” AFP, October 14, 2008
[Posted by David Bandurski, October 11, 2008, 12:01am]