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Dairy producers milk public trust
A friend of mine, who recently returned to Shanghai after a year of graduate study in Hong Kong, is very unsettled about all the news reports she has read about tainted dairy products on the mainland.
"It's almost impossible to trust domestic dairy companies after one safety scandal after another," she told me. "At least it's fairly easy nowadays to find imported milk products in online stores or in foreign merchandise supermarkets."
You don't have to spend time offshore to get nervous about Chinese dairy products. Plenty of domestic consumers feel the same way.
In fact, many of my friends and colleagues are turning to online retailers, such as Yihaodian and Fruitday, to buy an array of imported food products that they think are safer to eat.
The blame for this lack of public trust in domestic producers squarely rests on companies such as dairy groups Mengniu and Yili, who have failed to win back consumers after a series of product contamination scandals hit the headlines.
One would have assumed that such companies would have cleaned up their acts after the major scandal over melamine in powdered milk products back in 2008.
During a recent meeting of the China Dairy Industry Association, held in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, Guo Benheng, president of Shanghai-based Bright Dairy & Food Co, had the temerity to complain about what he called "excessive" food-safety checks now underway at both national and local levels.
"More than 2,600 examinations have been made in the first half this year, and this is truly devastating for Bright Dairy," he was quoted as saying in the Southern Metropolis Daily.
He added that he would resign if no quality issues were uncovered when similar scrutiny was applied to foreign dairy products. He also blamed the poor quality of dairy products in China on milk suppliers.
Just a minute here! Isn't it the responsibility of dairy companies to make sure the raw milk they get from suppliers meets quality standards before it is turned into beverages and other products? Maybe it is time for Guo to go.
The litany of sins in the industry continues.
In early August, two Mengniu employees were detained by police after they altered near-expiry dates on thousands of cartons of milk and sold them as fresh in Zhejiang Province.
A hornet's nest
Against this backdrop, Guo's comments have stirred up a hornet's nest.
"Is it truly devastating for Bright Dairy? It would be devastating only to our health if fewer food-safety checks were carried out," wrote one web user on the news portal 163.com.
The Shandong Province-based Qilu Evening News said in a commentary: "If Bright Dairy is so confident that its internal quality control procedures are trustworthy, then why should Guo complain about state and provincial level safety checks?"
Xi'an Evening News also weighed in to say that domestic dairy producers should stop boasting that their products are superior to imported brands.
"It's no use complaining about external factors if they can't put their noses to the grindstone and make trustworthy products," the newspaper said.
Shen Weimin, a spokesman for the Shanghai Municipal Bureau of Quality and Technical Supervision, defended all the safety surveillance, saying it is necessary to maintain public health, according to Oriental Morning Post.
Speaking at the industry association meeting, Zhu Hongren, a chief engineer at the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, admitted there is a yawning gap between what consumers expect when they buy dairy products and the quality of products they actually receive.
Dairy companies should be welcoming food-safety checks, not condemning them. They should also be stepping up their own internal quality control systems.
If they fail to respond to the public clamor for more food safety, they will eventually have no one to blame but themselves when consumers increasingly look elsewhere when shopping.