Thank God for the FDA: A sour tale of lemon flavored milk

By Don “Doc” Sanders

While not perfect, the Food and Drug Administration does provide scientific oversight to regulate the safety of our food supply. In contrast, the European Union puts its finger in the air to determine which direction the wind is blowing before setting food safety policy. Then they put it up for a vote in parliament.

In another corner of the world the Chinese government puts little stock in monitoring food safety. And with the events of the past few weeks, the Chinese citizens are certainly mad about it, burning up Chinese cyberspace with Tweets and Facebook and MySpace postings.

We are very fortunate in this country to have safe food, tight regulations and dependable farmers. This is not the case in other parts of the world where simply drinking milk can be a health hazard.

China is now in its third major milk scandal in a decade. The first two were over melamine-contaminated milk. You may remember the story about 50,000 babies being hospitalized in intensive care after consuming the concoction. (It looked and tasted somewhat like milk and was marketed as milk, but made babies ill.)

In China, food safety is the responsibility of the Chinese General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (GAQSIQ). The FDA they are not. They lack the resources in personnel, knowledge and lab availability to respond quickly to a safety issue. A veterinary friend of mine, Dr. Todd Meyer, who has a 2,500-cow herd in China, told me that contaminated milk is still a huge issue to overcome in China.

I can still remember my first trip to southern China. On my first night in a Chinese hotel, in Dalian, I had a craving for milk. Exploring the refrigerator, I found a carton of milk in addition to a lot of Diet Coke and booze. Taking a swig, I thought, “Hmm, this is a first. Lemon-flavored milk.” In the United States, I had drunk strawberry-flavored milk; even strawberry-banana milk. But never lemon. Then I read the label and discovered it was unflavored milk!

I fell asleep that evening visualizing my next day’s speech being interrupted half way through by an emergency bathroom break. Oh, Lordy! I could hardly sleep for worrying.  At breakfast the next morning, my interpreter told me to never drink Chinese milk. Drink yogurt instead, he advised. The processors in China can’t make yogurt without it being real milk, making it a safer bet than what passes in China for milk. I was certainly blessed that night. God gifted me with a super good immune system.

Recently, the GAQSIQ detected mold toxin contamination in Chinese milk — aflatoxins. When cows consume moldy feeds containing aflatoxins, some of the toxin is passed into the milk. The country’s largest dairy, Mengnui Dairy Group, was ordered to discard their current milk supply because of the contamination. Fortunately, Mengnui pledged to do just that.

Aflatoxins are a group of mold toxins that are potentially harmful when ingested by cows or humans. As a matter of fact, these toxins are carcinogenic. Aflatoxins are a result of an Aspergillus mold that grows on grain crops in wet regions. In the United States, that’s usually the Southeast. Fortunately, U.S. grain crops are monitored closely by private feed companies, the FDA and several agencies to ensure that mold toxins don’t appear at dangerous levels in cow feed or milk. FDA regulations ban aflatoxins in milk.

You may have seen or heard in the news that aflatoxins were recently detected in dog food here in the United States. Of course, early detection by the FDA and resulting quick product withdrawal by the manufacturing company ensured that our dog food supply was still of high quality.

Despite the milk scandals, milk consumption in China is up significantly. Chinese Premiere Wen Jiabao has set a goal that each Chinese child should drink three glasses of milk daily. Currently, Chinese dairies can supply only about a half glass per child. Consequently, there is a major drive to increase production.

Will China be able to do it? And, more important, can they do it safely? Only time — or possibly billions of dollars — will tell.

On that high-priced subject, the World Bank a few years ago provided $1 billion — yes, with a “B” — to build dairies in Heilongjiang Province in northern China. The funding was to incentivize Chinese dairymen to build western style dairies and to make China self-sufficient in satisfying its demand for milk.

I will give you three guesses where most of that World Bank money came from. The first two guesses don’t count! Not only that, but the funds are interest-free and need only be paid back in 20 years! Aren’t we generous!

In my travels I have visited a number of these new dairies. Most of them are for 2,500 to 3,000 cows. The largest one then under construction will have a capacity of 30,000 cows.

However, I have my reservations. For some Chinese operations, cheating is a way of life. Until the culture changes, I think we shouldn’t be so generous with our money. I think the more prudent approach would be to send them U.S. dairy products. It would be better for their health, would help our global trade balance and stimulate our dairy industry. As you may know, U.S. agriculture is the primary method for our country to maintain a balance of payments on the world market.

In 20 years, given the Chinese business culture, do you think they will pay the money back? If so, I’ve got some winning schemes of my own I’d like to talk with you about!

Doc is a regular columnist for Ohio’s Country Journal and a well respected Ohio veterinarian. Doc is a board-certified theriogenologist, a specialist in animal reproduction, and one of 330 theriogenologists in the world. Over the years, Doc has been a relatively prolific author. He has written more than 50 technical papers on various aspects of diagnosis, herd management, diseases and herd investigations

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