Got Milk?

This past week Jie-jie came home from school talking (in Chinese) about niu nai. That’s (cow) milk, folks. When we first arrived in Beijing over the summer, the city was plastered with milk advertisements and we found the same ad campaign upon arriving here in Guangzhou. Once or twice a week Jie-jie has milk during snack time at school. At the grocery store a wide variety of Chinese and imported milks, baby and child milk-based formulas, yogurts, and ice creams are available. Although the small, more traditional campus supermarket does not have cheese, the Park’n’Shop carries a wide variety of imported cheese, including Land o’ Lakes bricks of cheddar and Suki string cheese from the U.S. (As stated in an earlier post, we do not buy these non-organic industrial cheeses in the U.S. even though we usually have a brick on hand here in GZ).

I have been quite surprised by the prevalence of milk and other dairy products here in China. We expected to go largely without dairy during this year, and in fact, apart from the cheese and an occasional liter of imported milk and rare haagen daaz ice cream cup, we do mostly fore go dairy. However, the change in our dairy intake is driven more by our lack of trust in China’s dairy industry than limited supply.

In 2008 China became embroiled in a milk scandal in which hundreds of thousands of people were sickened, hundreds of babies and small children were hospitalized with kidney problems (most commonly kidney stones, but sometimes renal failure), and at least 6 Chinese infants died. Investigation into the problem revealed a two-year trend toward kidney problems in small children. The source of the contamination was melamine found in milk and, later, in baby formula and other products containing said milk. In this substantial food emergency, melamine was added to diluted milk (often sold to the dairy farmers as a “protein-enhancer” and other times added by those collecting milk regionally), thus artificially increasing the protein levels of watered down milk so that it would escape detection. Early in the scandal, the market for Chinese dairy products plummeted. Since that time, the Chinese milk inspection process has been beefed-up and foreign companies producing foodstuffs within China have developed their own safeguards (e.g. Starbucks went completely soy for a time, Nestle developed their own milk testing). At this point, as the “drink milk” ads we found scattered about Guangzhou and Beijing this summer suggest, the Chinese dairy industry is back – but we aren’t buying.

Apart from our concern with safety related to this issue, we have additional ecological concerns. Where are the cows? There must be a great many cows in China to provide dairy products for so many people. Is the milk produced within small or large dairies and under what health and safety conditions? What about the environment – are the cows grazing outside a smelter somewhere, ingesting and inhaling lead and other heavy metals? Are they treated with growth hormones and too many antibiotics? How does the milk get safely from the dairy to the store? What are the additional risks of contamination given that refrigerated trucks are not common here and that most milk is further processed for aseptic packaging?

All of our doubts make us unwilling to ingest Chinese dairy products. Sure, we get some domestic milk here and there (Jie-jie’s carton of milk at school, danone yogurt produced within China, the milk added to the food at the Indian restaurant, etc), but in general we drink imported and organic soy milk and stick to that shockingly orange brick of land o’ lakes cheddar. Furthermore, not only are we unwilling to be regular consumers of milk, the fact that those entrusted with producing safe food would so easily compromise the health of millions leaves us suspicious of all industrial food here in China. Bags of organic rice and beans, organic vegetables, “healthy green food” eggs, and thick-skinned fruit (we stick to imported apples, etc) make up the bulk of the domestic food we regularly purchase.

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