China Says a Little Melamine is OK

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From Jessie Jiang, a look at China’s new standards for melamine in milk:

Since the Chinese government announced its limits on dairy melamine Wednesday, it’s been gaining little but more embarrassment on the PR front.

At a press conference aimed at appeasing public anxiety, Health Ministry official Wang Xuening announced the levels of the much-feared chemical that will be allowed in milk products: 1 mg/kg for infant formulas, and 2.5 mg/kg for other dairies and foods that contain more than 15% milk.

The new standards angered some parents. “How can they still allow that stuff at all?” asked Shen Shanjun, 30, when she heard the news. The mother from the Hebei province city of Shijiazhuang has a 20-month-old son who, like tens of thousands of children around the country, fell sick as a result of tainted milk consumption. “This doesn’t make me feel safe at all,” she says. In no time, anonymous blog posts grew even more critical. Many of them took the standards as a green light for further adulteration, and blamed the government for putting profits ahead of people’s health.

Adopting a scientifically acceptable standard is a different thing from condoning unscrupulous producers. Before this crisis the government didn’t even have a standard for melamine. Setting up regulations is the least it can do in a crisis like this–especially in a society where morals often bend for the buck. The real question is why didn’t it do this sooner. But at least it’s a step ahead of the efforts during last year’s toothpaste scandal, when mainland officials, in a desperate attempt to preserve the plummeting reputation of the “Made in China” name, urged Hong Kong to lower its standards for diethylene glycol in toothpastes. By embracing a sounder standard on milk, at least mainland officials haven’t resorted to coercing other jurisdictions.

In terms of restoring trust, though, it takes more than just a hindsight regulation, or an apologetic, grandfatherly prime minister. Obviously, the only way out is to stop making defective products, and to create profits through innovation. Even then, it takes time to rebuild public confidence. But dodging and covering up can only be the bridge to nowhere.