Milk scandal blows away China's feel-good mood

Contaminated baby formula, the return of pollution and other troubles have led many to think the Olympics were a curse
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The widening scandal over contamination of milk products in China, which spread last week from baby formula to liquid milk, ice-cream and yoghurt, has not only blown away the last lingering shreds of post-Olympics euphoria, but has also reinforced a widespread superstition involving the mascots for the Games.

For the Olympics and Paralympics, which ended last Wednesday, China came up with six cuddly fuwa, or mascots. But each has become associated in the public mind with recent troubles in the country.

One fuwa is a panda, the symbol of Sichuan, which was struck by an earthquake. Another resembles a torch, which is said to represent the protests against the international Olympic torch relay. A Tibetan antelope is seen as a symbol of the unrest in that region in March; a swallow that looks like a kite has been linked to a deadly train crash in Shandong province; and a fish was taken to represent widespread flooding in southern and central China.

The sixth fuwa, devised for the Paralympics, is a cow. To many, the link to the milk scandal is clear. "All six fuwa have appeared now. It's time to stop," wrote one blogger.

Yesterday traffic restrictions imposed during the Games were lifted and factories reopened, bringing relief to thousands who were laid off. But with anxious parents queueing in hospitals to check if their babies have been made ill by contaminated milk powder, and the capital's choking pollution threatening to return, any Olympics feel-good factor has vanished. There are also indications that the biggest dairy company, Sanlu, and local officials waited to go public on the contamination as they were afraid of a scandal during the Olympics.

Sanlu is 43 per cent owned by New Zealand's Fronterra, the biggest dairy exporter in the world. The New Zealand government went over the heads of local authorities who were trying to bury reports that suppliers in their area were responsible for contaminated baby formula and that children were falling ill. So far four babies have died, and hundreds more have serious kidney ailments.

The scandal centres on the use of melamine, a chemical used to tan leather or make plastic. Farmers who watered down their milk added melamine to make it appear that the milk still contained the correct amount of protein. They then sold it to major dairies, which apparently did not check the milk properly before turning it into powder for infant formula. An inquiry showed 22 of 109 Chinese dairy producers, including top brands, made products adulterated with melamine, forcing companies such as Starbucks and KFC to switch to imported milk.

Apart from examining a possible cover-up, investigators will want to know how so many farmers knew about the technique of adding melamine to disguise their cheating. The chemical is not water-soluble, and must be mixed with another chemical, such as formaldehyde, before it can be dissolved in milk.

The scandal, the latest in a succession calling into question product safety in China, has caused outrage. "How can people do this?" demanded Ma Li, 35, a marketing manager in Beijing. "They should be severely punished. The relevant government departments should be held responsible, as they began the investigation so late."

Wang Wanli, 64, a retired teacher, has switched to soy milk. "Those producers should be punished, not just the suspected farmers," she said. "When I heard 22 companies' products were tainted, I was deeply shocked."