The health scare surrounding Chinese milk products may have been triggered in part by the Western world’s desire for cheap food to combat the soaring cost of living, according to a West Midland product liability lawyer.
Darren Smith believes some Chinese suppliers may continue to be tempted to cut corners in order to meet the West’s unrealistic expectation of an unending flow of cheap products.
He also believes that China faces a dilemma: as it captures an increasingly large slice of the global economy, prices and wages are being driven upwards, making it increasingly difficult to compete on cost alone.
The dairy whose products sparked the latest panic is alleged to have bulked out powdered baby milk with melamine – a chemical used in the manufacture of plastics and fertilisers – presumably for profit.
Mr Smith, a partner in the Birmingham office of international law firm Reed Smith, says countries around the world, including Britain, have stopped importing Chinese goods with any measure of dairy content, in response to the crisis.
Four infants are known to have died in China, and tens of thousands more have developed kidney stones after being fed milk formula said to have been “cut” with the lethal chemical.
As well as causing kidney stones Melamine can cause liver failure.
As a precautionary measure, and amid fears that the contamination might affect other milk products, Britain’s biggest grocer, Tesco, has cleared its shelves of White Rabbit Creamy Candies following an alert from the authorities in New Zealand who first raised the alarm.
Mr Smith says the scare demonstrates how easily household name brands – built up over many years at a cost of millions of pounds – might be damaged by a single lapse in vigilance.
He is warning all businesses importing food and other goods from China to exercise extreme caution, and to set up strict monitoring systems to ensure the provenance of the goods they bring in.
“The situation highlights the need for companies to ensure that any raw materials or finished products sourced abroad are fully compliant with EU regulations, and have been properly tested,” said Mr Smith.
“If they are not confident in the supplier’s testing arrangements, then they have to initiate their own.”
“This scare raises questions about quality control standards in China, and their need to produce goods at cheap prices, as well as the strength of consumer protection there,” Mr Smith said.
Earlier this year a similar scandal came to light concerning pet food imported to the US from China. It, too, was contaminated with melamine.
“In the light of that, it might have been reasonable for the Chinese authorities to ensure that the proper tests were carried out on food intended for human consumption,” he added.
One of the most alarming features of the latest scare is the suggestion that the Chinese authorities were aware of the contamination as far back as August, but hushed the matter up because a scandal would have tarnished the showpiece Beijing Olympics.
“Another thing emerged was that when the whole thing finally came to light it wasn’t made public by he Chinese at all, but by the New Zealand Government which was notified by a firm which had trade links with China,” Mr Smith added.
“Arising from all of this is the question of traceability. In a world where anything, including food, can be sourced internationally it is essential that the organisation adding its name to the final product is satisfied with the traceability of everything that has gone into it, and that there is proper certification to prove it.
“That could involve going out to these countries to see the manufacturing process for themselves – or even taking the view that sourcing cheap is not necessarily the best solution.
“People are increasingly asking questions about the processes by which food gets to their plate,” Mr Smith added.
“Food prices are going up around the world and the concern of many people is that what they eat is safe. Even though prices are rising, for many consumers cost is not necessarily at the top of the agenda any more.”