I’m so glad September and October are over. In September melamine powder was sold to Chinese farmers and other food producers, allowing everyone along the food supply chain “to make more money,” as one of those arrested later admitted. On the consumer side, tens of thousands of babies were poisoned. That same month In the US, the practices of Wall Street financiers managed to create the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
Then in October, the presidential candidates got down to discussing the need for healthcare reform. The US spends almost twice as much per person on healthcare as the average high-income country. If healthcare costs continue to grow faster than the rest of the economy, as they have for the past 30 years, they will be 30% of gross domestic product in another 30 years. Ouch!
The issues surrounding healthcare reform are difficult and complex, but at least part of the problem is something I mentioned in an earlier post: decisions in the healthcare industry are driven not by the needs of patients but, once again, by the need “to make more money.”
All these things — healthcare, the economic crisis, melamine adulteration of the food supply — merged in my election-fevered brain into despair at how the selfish, if not reckless, decisions of a few can jeopardize the health and livelihood of so many. Together, they feed a crisis of confidence in the systems we depend on. In moments like this, it can be hard to be hopeful for the world.
A Chinese shopper wonders: Got Melamine?
Melamine is an organic chemical composed mostly of nitrogen – 66% by mass. In contrast, protein typically has 10 to 12% nitrogen. It turns out that if you dilute milk and add water-soluble melamine powder, it looks like real milk when tested for protein. You can also mix melamine with specially treated water to create a milk-like liquid that can pass government quality tests. Why do either of these things? Once again, “to make more money.”
In the summer of 2007, melamine was found in pet food in the United States; thousands of cats and dogs were poisoned. In this year’s scandal, melamine in milk products killed at least four infants and sickened 54,000 babies in China. Melamine contamination later spread to candy, instant coffee, yogurt, biscuits, and other products made with Chinese milk. It’s recently been discovered in eggs and animal feed, which means fish, shrimp, beef, and poultry may now be contaminated.
There was a nice Wall Street Journal piece from Hong Kong on the social aspects of the melamine scandal: how do people behave when they lose confidence that the food they’re eating is safe? In Hong Kong, many people can afford to purchase canned milk imported from the west; in Mainland China, many parents cannot. What’s especially disheartening is that parents affected by the latest melamine episode believed they already were being careful by using only trusted, presumably high-quality brands. Why? Because after a 2004 scandal in which the removal of protein from milk powder led to infant deaths and malnutrition, Chinese parents learned to buy only reputable brands. But now even these better brands can’t be trusted. Crisis of confidence indeed.
Health is more than drugs and disease. It’s the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe. We need to be able to trust them all.
For a while, what I came to think of as the “melamine syndrome” became a symbol of so much that’s wrong with the world. But then we had the election, and I had a new symbol for a different worldview. I’m feeling hopeful again.
(Hover over book titles for more info. Links will open in a separate window or tab.)
Maureen Fan and Ariana Eunjung Cha, Retracing the Path Toxic Powder Took To Food in China, November 8, 2008, The Washington Post.
Joseph Sternberg, Notes on a Milk Scandal, October 10, 2008, The Wall Street Journal
V. R. Fuchs, “Three ‘Inconvenient Truths’ about Health Care,” The New England Journal of Medicine. Volume 359:1749-1751, October 23, 2008, Number 17.