13 000 babies hospitalised from melamine in infant formula


“I thought it would be better for his growth to have milk powder,” Zhang said, cradling her gently cooing son outside the headquarters of China’s Sanlu Group, now at the centre of a scandal about toxic milk powder.

“I’ll never feed it to him again,” she added, waiting her turn to return the powder, which has already made more than 6,000 Chinese babies sick and killed three after it was contaminated with melamine, a compound often used to measure protein.


Yet some companies make wild claims about their milk.

“For quite a while now infant formula companies have been making claims that we believe are not supportable by science. Quite often in East Asia the most appealing claims are they put ingredients in the milk that make the children smarter,” said Dale Rutstein, UNICEF’s China communications chief.

Wu Bixian, another Shijiazhuang mother, said she stopped breastfeeding when her son was four months old.

“It was to boost his nutrition,” Wu said when asked why she had switched to milk powder. “I felt I couldn’t give him enough nutrition myself and formula would be better than breast milk.”

13 000 babies are now in hospital from melamine-contamined infant formula. And that number is rising. At least four babies have died. This is a human crisis of enormous proportions.

Melamine, a poison that damages the kidneys, is used to boost the appearance of protein in the formula. And that poisoned formula is pushed onto families with persuasive claims of it being superior nutrition, “scientifically” formulated, the new and better way to feed babies.

Every call for controls on formula advertising is met with vigorous and sustained legal opposition by the giant formula conglomerates, despite the WHO Code being in place almost everywhere in the world for years now.

Even where production regulation is tight, contaminated baby formula is out there on the market. Formula contaminated with Enterobacter sakazakii is a recurrent problem for premature and newborn babies all over the world, yet formula companies still refuse to get on board with WHO recommendations that only ready-to-feed formula should be given to newborns where mother’s milk or donor milk is not available.

The solution is very much a multi-headed one. Tighter regulation of infant formula safety is, of course, essential. But it’s not the whole answer, not in the longer term. Human milk banks need to be routinely available and publicly funded, not oddities for unusual situations. And society, every society, needs to be rearranged such that breastfeeding and relactating mothers are truly supported to do so, financially, socially, and practically.

The deep-rooted perception that women’s bodies and milk are all inherently defective, substandard, not good enough: this needs to change. And for that, we need feminism.

There are a lot of baby steps along this path. If you’d like to support the global effort to improve children’s health and support families, please donate to UNICEF. They’re one of the few aid agencies that considers breastfeeding support to be an integral part of both disaster assistance and everyday health promotion.

Categories: gender & feminism, health

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13 replies

  1. I don’t have anything insightful to say. It’s just all too horrifying. Those poor children.

  2. What can you say? It’s heartbreaking. I can’t begin to imagine the grief and rage of those poor parents.

  3. And I’d like to make a special mention of the wankers at Fonterra who sat on the information (“wanted to work within the Chinese system”), the wankers at the New Zealand embassy who sat on the information a bit more, and finally the semi-wankers in the NZ Government who did finally say, “Oh hai China, u haz milk problem” … after knowing about it for a week.
    Of course, I have the sneaking suspicion it would never have gotten this far if it were Kiwi or Aussie babies involved.

  4. QoT: quite right. Note that the number of babies currently hospitalised in China is about equivalent to every single formula fed infant in Western Australia (taking six-month BFing rates as a very approximate average).
    ETA: and would fill Princess Margaret Hospital 57 times over.

  5. Oh my god, that’s so awful. Words fail me…

  6. Melamine, a poison that damages the kidneys, is used to boost the appearance of protein in the formula.
    I’ve been following this, and I’d meant to e-mail to ask you if you could explain this to me. How does melamine “boost the appearance of protein” and to whom? Just on gross visual inspection it looks more protein-y? It mimics protein in some more formal inspection?
    Obviously, as you say, the problem is the pushing of formula feeding at the expense of children’s health to turn a profit, but I guess I’m trying to understand the nature of this immediate threat and how it came to be.

  7. Matilda, my understanding is that products in China, as elsewhere, are subject to independent laboratory testing for safety/quality control purposes (those for export get tested again by import countries). Melamine is high in nitrogen which registers as ‘protein’ in laboratory testing. This enables producers to massively dilute their product to save money then top up the protein count by adding melamine so it looks like full strength. It was melamine added to rice and wheat concentrates that caused the problems in US pet food last year.

  8. Thanks so much, DEM, that helps!
    MatildaZQs last blog post..The Rock Loves Pie: Alton Brown’s "Super Apple Pie"

  9. Between this, the architectural faults that were revealed earlier this year, and last year’s pet food issue, I would sure as hell hope the Chinese government takes a cue from Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.
    This in particular is so damn horrifying.

  10. What I find interesting is that millions of babies die every year because they are fed formula instead of or as well as breastmilk but that never hits the press. Millions more get sick; really really sick. I really don’t understand why the world is so worked up about these formula related deaths and yet completely blind to the ones that happen each and every year. It can’t be because we are suprised to find that consumers have been actively decieved by a multination corporation for profit, can it?


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