Tainted Information and Tainted Milk

Tainted Information and Tainted Milk

A recent tainted milk disaster in China has killed at least three infants and made thousands of others sick. Several countries have banned or recalled Chinese dairy products in response. Economic and health experts are still trying to measure the impact of the melamine contamination. But with allegations of cover-ups and corruption, this catastrophe raises issues about the control of information.

From the New York Times:

Beijing authorities say they learned about the problem only this month. They have blamed greedy corporations and local officials for wrongly hiding the crisis. But there were early warnings that were muffled by censorship or lapses in Beijing.

A key problem was that warnings were simply ignored and withheld. Chinese citizens may have noticed a connection between sick children and specific dairy products as early as February. Local officials were alerted to the problem, but were either unwilling or unable to respond. One journalist claims he became aware of milk-related illnesses in July, but was not permitted to publish articles about it. With the Olympic games on the horizon, censorship edicts had become more and more restrictive to preserve “harmony”.

Even as the scandal finally surfaced, key information had been distorted. By September, the Chinese government finally acknowledged the scandal, and responded by firing and arresting several high-ranking officials. But the state’s official news agency quickly shifted towards praising the government’s response, despite months of neglect. So the truism goes, power corrupts. It's not hard to predict the effect of power over information.

Perhaps if the Chinese government's power over the media weren't an issue, journalists could offer a wider range of perspectives, let alone criticism. After all, uncensored bloggers were outraged at the government's response. But even ignoring censorship of the media, let alone internet discussions, there are still obstacles in terms of access to information. If the tainted milk was discovered sooner, the damage would have been limited. Since the problem took months to even understand, the damage was catastrophic.

Citizens had to experience the effects of contamination before they began the slow process of tracing the problem to its root cause, with limited resources and little help. This crisis was completely preventable. The Chinese government had the authority and resources to oversee the dairy industry, and could have detected the contamination promptly. But they chose not to:

China’s leading dairy companies — including the Sanlu Group, the worst offender in the scandal — were exempted from mandatory government inspections. In hindsight, inspections might not have mattered: in May, the government’s top food quality agency rated dairy companies among the safest producers in China’s food industry, reporting that 99 percent of them passed safety inspections for their infant milk formula. Now, the government says that 22 dairy companies, including export brands like Mengniu and Yili, have produced powdered baby formula that contains traces of melamine.

The obvious lesson is that an independent and free press is vital to inform the public of a growing catastrophe. But without independent and free access to information about practices that affect millions of people, more catastrophes are inevitable. After all, this was not the first time that melamine contamination in China impacted the world.