So I was listening to NPR the other day and I heard the story about the Sanlu Milk Company. No doubt you've all heard it now. A recent government inspection, following a rash of illnesses among small infants, found that 22 companies in China- most notably the Sanlu Milk Company, which is 43% owned by the New Zealand dairy cooperative Fonterra- were selling milk adulterated with melamine. Melamine is one of the most nitrogen-rich organic compounds in existence- with two nitrogens for every carbon, and 66% nitrogen by weight. It is derived from the naturally occuring chemical cyanamide, which plants use to kill weed competitors and insects, if I recall correctly. It's sometimes used as a nitrogen source for cows (they can assimilate some inroganic nitrogen because of the bacteria in their stomachs) but is a poor one, hard to break down.
It's also, of course, toxic to humans. It causes kidney stones, bladder stones, urinary problems, and acute kidney problems. So far, 6200 infants are sick, many in serious condition, and four have died. They didn't die peacefully in their sleep either. They sickened and died in pain over months, as their young bodies couldn't deal with the toxin and their kidneys gradually shut down. Imagine dying over the course of months, being slowly poisoned by your own urine as your kidneys shut down. And imagine being only a year old, and not having any idea what is happening to you.
Melamine is illegaly used as a food and feed adulterant in China, in order to evade quality tests. Tests of protein content typically directly test nitrogen concentration, since proteins are typically the largest source of nitrogen in most organic material. Melamine is nutritionally less than worthless (or actually, toxic) but because it is 66% nitrogen by weight (protein is only 16% on average) it "fools" the test into concluding that the protein content is higher than it is- one gram of melamine is interpreted as four grams of protein. So in order to be able to claim that their product was high in protein, and thus to be able to dilute it with water and produce it more cheaply, the food product company adulterated it and produced milk that was not only watered-down, but laden with poison as well.
I have no words, really, to describe this, except one: evil. If you ever doubted that real evil existed in the world, think about deliberately adding poison to the milk that mothers are going to feed to small infants. Think about watching a baby suck on its bottle and knowing that they are sucking down something that will crystallize in their kidneys and shut them down. What makes this worse is that the company, and the Chinese government, knew about this at least by June, and probably by March of this year. But rather than risk a scandal that would detract from the glory of the Olympics, they hushed it up for four months until four babies were dead, and six thousand very sick.
And this in a supposedly socialist country, too. Karl Marx, a century and a half ago, wrote indignantly about the iniquity of the British capitalists who were adulterating the bread that British workmen ate, with chalk, alum and other nutritionally worthless substances. Of course, Karl Marx was writing in a more innocent time, when people assumed that we were progressing day by day towards a better future- a world of more humanity, more charity, and more goodwill. Karl Marx thought the British capitalists of his day were evil enough (and they were); he would have been stunned that the Chinese capitalists of the future would adulterate milk for children, not just with chalk but with actual poison. He couldn't foresee this any more than he could foresee the cruel and brutal ends to which his own ideology would be put by Mao.
We've certainly proved, in the last hundred years or so, how evil we can be as a race, and it's just been proven again this month. The women who have lost or are losing their children are poor, helpless peasant women who did as they were told and now have no recourse. No recourse except for the one who said, And whoever shall offend one of these little ones that believe in me, it is better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the sea. Let's pray for the families who have lost children, and for the children themselves. In Brazilian folk tradition it used to be held- perhaps still is- that infants who die before the age of reason go straight to heaven and attend on the throne of the Lord. Maybe that's true, maybe not, but I like to hope that it is. And above all, let's not forget, twenty years from now when China is the biggest economy in the world, the extent to which their wealth was built on the suffering of children.