A Tragedy Unfolds: Mason Experts Comment on China’s Tainted Milk Crisis

Posted: October 23, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Marjorie Musick

According to the World Health Organization, parents of more than 54,000 infants and young children have sought medical treatment in relation to melamine-contaminated dairy products in China.

Three deaths among infants have been confirmed, and more than 13,000 infants have been hospitalized. Presented below are the views of Mason experts on this public health crisis.

Lisa Pawloski
Lisa Pawloski

Lisa Pawloski

Associate professor and chair of the Department of Global and Community Health

“In the United States, we are fortunate to have our infant formulas tested by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ensure proper nutrient content and safety. I do not believe that parents in the United States should be too concerned regarding the safety of infant formulas in the United States, as they are well regulated.

“Sadly, many people in developing countries that cannot afford to ship back contaminated formula may ultimately pay a larger price, particularly as these countries may not be able to provide good medical intervention. This crisis just exemplifies the issue of how globalization may affect our food supply, such that unregulated ingredients may unknowingly end up in products thought to be safe.

“I think that the next administration should make sure that the FDA continues to examine and regulate the production of safe infant formulas. I would also like to see greater promotion and encouragement of breastfeeding (i.e., require workplaces to provide a clean and comfortable space for mothers to breastfeed or pump milk). In addition, I would suggest that there be greater regulation of imported products such as vitamin supplements and herbal medicines, which are not regulated by the FDA but by the Federal Trade Commission. The United States should also attempt to assist countries with poor regulation practices in developing good quality control and regulation of food and drug products to ensure the safety and protection of their citizens.”

P.J. Maddox
P.J. Maddox

P.J. Maddox

Professor and chair of the Department of Health Administration and Policy

“For more than 100 years, the FDA has closely monitored the American food and feed supply and regulates all food and animal feed additives, including imported products, under the Import Safety Action Plan.

“Due to post-9/11 national health and security concerns and the increasing globalization of food and feed products, the FDA has adopted new food safety monitoring programs using technical risk analysis. In 2007, the FDA implemented a new comprehensive Food Protection Plan that involves working with industry and state, local and foreign governments to prevent, detect and respond to food and feed-supply safety problems. It also calls for the United States to collaborate with foreign authorities to reduce potential food supply risks from imported food and feed.

“In December 2007, the United States and China signed a memorandum of agreement to ensure food and feed safety. The purpose of the bilateral agreement is to provide greater information and other assurances to enhance the safety of food and animal feed products traded between the two countries. This agreement and China’s adoption of FDA standards for safety, information exchange and regulatory systems will be pivotal to ensuring the safety of the international food supply in the future.”

Ming Wan
Ming Wan

Ming Wan

Professor, Department of Public and International Affairs

“It would be difficult for such crises to take place in the United States because the media would get on top of it quickly, and the companies responsible for all of this would be sued out of existence.

“There have been poisoned-food scares in the United States, but government officials, particularly elected ones, know too well that they need to share information with the public quickly. In fact, it is accepted that the public has the right to know.

“I would advise the next administration to strengthen the inspection and regulation of food, to treat food safety as equally important to national security and to increase global cooperation on food safety.

“With a globalized economy, unsafe products in another part of the world may well end up on our own dinner tables, often as ingredients. Unlike some sensitive issues in U.S.-China relations in recent years that have led to Chinese public resentment toward the United States, an American call for Chinese transparency and accountability in food production should resonate with the Chinese public, which stands to benefit first from improved food security.”

Lisa Eckenwiler
Lisa Eckenwiler

Lisa Eckenwiler

Associate professor of philosophy and director of health care ethics at the Center for Health Policy Research and Ethics

“From an ethical perspective, there are a number of concerns worth highlighting here that revolve around the principles of transparency, integrity and trust. There was a failure of transparency on the part of the company as well as the Chinese government. A related ethical principle is that of integrity. This has been defined as ‘a kind of reliable accountability.’ In other words, it captures the ethical significance of being responsive and reliable to others who depend on us, especially those who are in situations of vulnerability (like parents trying to care as best they can for their children, and the children themselves).

“In the end, because of these failures of transparency and integrity, people’s trust in the corporate sector and in their government officials was betrayed. Some might even say it was exploited, especially by people motivated by power and profit.

“As China’s civil society strengthens and the country becomes more democratic, we can expect things to improve. Despite the tragedy, it’s possible to view this story as an example of advances being made. It was the Internet activity and the resultant public outcry that made the difference here.

“And to return just briefly to the corporate sector, it’s worth noting that we have experience here in the United States that demonstrates that when companies are honest and open about problems, they can regain trust and even become stronger financially.”

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