China food chief resigns in milk scandal

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There is a Chinese saying - the mountains are high and the emperor is very far away. If the Olympics offered the world and the Chinese public a statement on imperial control, the tainted milk scandal that has soured the post-Games mood has underlined the limitations of that power.

The stringent food safety rules imposed by Beijing have little impact in this vast country. Rules are often ignored, as it is difficult to enforce the legislation and farmers hit by rising materials and labour costs are using routes such as diluting milk with melamine - which is used to tan leather and manufacture plastics - as a means of securing their living.

But now the Emperor is angry. The greed of farmers and the indifference of local authorities is damaging the Made in China brand.

It's the worst health scare to hit China in recent years, and increasingly people are wondering why the official response is always so slow, whether it's bird flu, lead paint in toys, poisoned noodles or other gaping lapses of food safety.

Premier Wen Jiabao was widely pictured comforting the anxious parents in the Chinese media today, but his presence does not mask the fact that China's record on reporting health scares is very poor. When the respiratory illness SARS broke in 2003, the Chinese government won plaudits for dealing with it, but only after weeks of cover-up. The impact of bird flu was also covered up, and it is only in the last couple of years that Chinese media has been allowed to report on disasters such as mine disasters. The government is worried about the political fall-out from food scares and safety scandals.

There are whisperings that local officials knew that melamine was being used in milk products three years ago. And the current batch of poisoned milk emerged before the Olympics, with allegations that company chiefs kept it quiet so as not to spoil the Olympic party.

The Chinese government is furious about the scandal, because providing healthy baby milk is central to Communist ideology. The Chinese government is keen to keep any displays of public disorder to a minimum, and something like the health scare has made the Communists worried. The delay in reporting the milk contamination was mostly linked to local officials worried about central government anger. Combine this with Beijing's drive to have everything perfect for its big coming-out party, the Olympics, and you can see why it took so long the information took so long to emerge.

The administration has made major efforts to clean up its food safety act, including the execution of the Food and Safety Czar a couple of years ago. The response has yet to be so brutal this time around but yesterday China's head of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, Li Changjiang resigned. The reason this keeps happening again and again in China is corruption. Many local food companies are involved with the officials in the village in which they work.

The mountains remain high and the emperor is still far away.