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China: Did powdered milk cause infant breast development?

Recently across China, more than 20 infant girls have been found to have begun developing breasts in what has been called “mini-puberty”. Reports also indicate that at least 3 infant boys also have been found with elevated estrogen levels. The levels of female hormones in the small children, ranging between 4-15 months old, is greater than that of an average adult female.  In fact, levels have been detected which are more than double the normal average for an adult female.

Although the Chinese Ministry of Health (卫生部)has said that tests have cleared the milk powder of containing levels of hormones beyond the allowable range, Chinese media and bloggers are still talking about what this newly uncovered event means.

Certainty vs. Uncertainty

What is certain is that these infants have hormone levels higher than a normal average woman and that the girls have begun developing breasts. It is also certain that all of the affected children were consuming the same brand of Synutra milk powder (圣元奶粉). What remains officially uncertain is what the cause is.

With 2008's melamine (三聚氰胺) additive milk scandal involving the Three Deers Brand (三鹿) still recently fresh on many people's minds, and both the government and the companies eager to avoid further damage to China's brand and country image, the company and government are denying that the cause is linked to the product. However, no other cause has yet been determined. Until a conclusive test proves a link between the powder and the elevated hormone levels, it would be too early to convict Synutra on appearances, but there are questions which are being asked that remain unanswered.

Where's that sample from?

While 42 different samples have been tested, reports indicate that only one of those samples came from the powder in the homes of the affected children that was actually consumed.

Some sources have asked why the tested samples have not included more of the actual powder consumed by the children?

From waimiao10 on blog.163.com:

据报导,武汉3名女婴去医院检查身体时,医生发现她们体内的雌激素已经达到了成年女性的水平,医生建议家长立即停用女婴喝的圣元奶粉。

 奇怪的是,数起相同案例,受害者在停用奶粉后,女婴的乳房也停止了增长。

According to the report, at the time when the 3 female infants from Wuhan went to the hospital to get examined, doctors found that the level of estrogen in their systems was already higher than in mature women. The doctors recommended that the families immediately stop using the Synutra milk powder.

Strangely, in a number of similar cases, as soon as the affected children stopped use of the milk powder, the development of breast tissue also stopped.

Circumstantially, a connection between the elevated levels of estrogen in the children and the use of the Synutra would seem fairly evident, but how can tests prove a conclusive link if the powder that was actually being consumed by the children isn't analyzed?

Differing points of view

Not all share the view that the problem is related to the milk powder and the Synutra company.

An article in the Zhanjiang Daily (湛江日报) points out:

国家乳品研究中心高级工程师李涛博士透露,奶粉中含激素并非个案,对不孕奶牛注射催奶液追求高出奶率已成行业潜规则。

“人们在喝牛奶的时候可能不会想到为奶牛多产奶采取的措施:一年一次的人工授精、流产、注射催乳素……除此之外,一些奶牛场还给奶牛注射控孕催乳剂,使奶牛不怀孕就大量产奶。人们应当注意的问题是,牛奶中所含大量雌性激素会导致孩子性早熟,男性性功能障碍,及女性乳腺癌、子宫内膜癌等疾病的发生。 ”

A high-level engineer for the National Dairy Products Research Institute, Doctor Tao Li, reveals that it isn't a specific case of milk powder containing hormones, instead it is that as part of the unwritten rules of the industry, dairy cows are routinely injected with hormones and drugs to increase the rate of milk production.

“While drinking a glass of milk, people can't possibly imagine the amount of measures taken to produce high volumes of milk. Artificial insemination, abortions [of calves], injecting milk-producing hormones…apart from this, some dairy farms also inject birth-control hormones into the cows to stimulate milk production, using infertility drugs to keep cows producing at high volumes. What people ought to be paying attention to mainly is that milk containing high levels of estrogen can lead to premature sexual development in children and obstruction of sexual function in males, breast cancer in females, cancer of the uterine lining, these types of health issues.”

Industry-wide problem, Company problem, or larger Social Issue?

The question is then posed: is this a problem specific to Synutra and its production of children's milk powder, or an indictment implicating the practices of the dairy industry as a whole that affects not only these children but society at large? Are these children simply victims of an unusually concentrated dosage of hormones that the industry is injecting into all of its dairy cows in an effort to artificially increase milk production, or did Synutra illegally manipulate the processing of its children's milk powder resulting in these cases?

More importantly, will the government decide that it wants to know the truth, investigate, and hold those responsible to the proper consequences; or, will it seek to do damage control, give assurances, and protect the reputations and businesses of the companies and industries involved?

Competition from overseas imports

Ironically, and counter-productively, if there is not a clear and decisive investigation which reaches the root of the problem, this will only serve to strengthen non-Chinese import brands as Chinese consumers will be afraid to purchase their country's own goods.

‘Wooded Valley’ (林子虚谷) points out that since the 2008 melamine scare, overseas brands have continued to rise in popularity and profitability, increasing in price 3 times in 2010 over the first half of the year with each increase between 10-12%. The overall profit margin for the industry is 30%, with low quality brands earning on average 8-10% profit while high quality brands enjoy 50-100% earnings. He asserts that if Chinese companies don't increase their quality they will continue to lose out to the foreign brands:

从情感上我们希望它是某个品牌的局部危机,甚至我们希望它是一个误会。但不是这个名牌,又是谁呢,难道是那些假冒奶粉在作祟。中国奶粉的已经无法再惊得起折腾了。
  人无信不立,国无信不强,没有信誉将是中国奶粉的集体悲剧!中国奶粉什么时候有与洋品牌竞争的资本,如果连自己的质量都保不住,与洋奶粉的角逐不过是一个集体的痴人说梦而已!中国奶粉进军高端市场的大门也会无限期被关闭!

From an emotional standpoint I hope it is some kind of local problem, even to the point I hope it is just some kind of misunderstanding. But if its not this brand than which? Don't tell me it's some kind of phantom imitation. The already incompetent Chinese milk powder [industry] is again scared, tossing and turning.

If the people don't have faith there can be no building, if the government doesn't have trust it can't be strong, without prestige it will be a collective tragedy for the Chinese milk powder industry. When will Chinese milk powder products be able to compete with overseas imports, if they continue not to ensure the quality of their own products? In the struggle against foreign brands it will be a bunch of foolish dreaming [unless quality is self-insured]! [Without internal oversight and quality-assurance] China's march towards the gates of the high-end market will find them locked indefinitely!

Economic development through the development of Consumer-Government trust and safe Corporate-Industry practices

The hidden message in the bottle is that nothing could be better for domestic Chinese economic development and the foreign reputation of Chinese companies than a thorough, open, decisive investigation which determines exactly what the cause of the problem is and what is responsible.

So long as domestic Chinese consumers and foreign observers have no faith in the quality of Chinese produced goods, economic development will be limited and possibly even slide backwards. If the Chinese consumer believes that they can trust the government to do its job to protect them and that Chinese brands are striving to assure their own highest possible standards of quality to compete on the international market, they will be more likely to purchase Chinese goods.

If, however, they do not trust the quality of Chinese brands and do not have faith in the government's methods of protection and investigation, they will turn away from Chinese brands and purchase foreign imports, hurting domestic Chinese economic development and growth.

A QQ user writes:

在“圣元奶粉事件”的报道中,所有性早熟、激素均是“疑因食用”圣元奶粉,也就是说没有直接的证据证明这一点,事件已经发生或被发现至今一周了,相关部门还没有拿出相应的质检报告,在一件举国上下关注的食品安全公共卫生事件面前,一份实实在在的质检报告为什么如此之难。

Every report on the “Synutra milk powder case” and all of the premature sexual development and hormone levels, Synutra is referred to as the “suspected product” because there hasn't been a direct link established proving this point. The case has already been circulating for a whole week, and the related departments still haven't come up with the appropriate inspection reports. In a case affecting the entire country's food product and public safety, why has it been so difficult to provide a genuine report on the inspection of quality?

The emotions of people towards this case can be seen even more clearly in the case of parents whose children have used the product. ‘Big Brother Tiger’ (虎哥) writes:

最近媒体报道圣元奶粉导致多名女婴性早熟的事件,我对此事高度观注,因为我儿子从出生到现在一直都喝圣元,但事情到现在已经过去好几天了,国家相关部门今天称乳粉激素含量无异常 。但是又有多少国民相信这些砖家的呢? 去看网上调查问卷结果就知道 !!!!!!!

2008年三聚氰胺事件那时,那时包括圣元在内的全国二十多家奶粉都被查出含有此种物质,我记得圣元的老总还当场鞠躬致歉,并说 出问题的奶粉都是国产奶源,进口奶源都不存在问题,表示今后圣元要使用进口奶源。三聚氰胺事件发生后,国家质检部门对市场上销售的所有品牌奶粉分批次取样抽检化验,真他M好意思舔脸说,出问题了想起来抽样质检了,你质检部门平时的工作都是干P的!

…圣元的官方网站上说是从欧盟进口的,但是我打客服电话询问时,客服人员说是从新西兰进口的,到底哪的,自相矛盾!可以肯定圣元的奶源肯定有问题!这次激素门事发后,我又看到这样的文字:国家质检部门已对圣元奶粉取样检查,我还是那句话:你质检部门的人员日常工作都是干P的啊,非得出事了才去检查,平时天天坐办公室吃屎啊!…想当初三聚氰胺时你们一个个哭叽赖嚎的请求人民的原谅,真不如当初就一棒子打死算了!!

The latest media reports on Synutra milk powder leading to premature sexual development in infant girls is something I'm watching very carefully because my son has been drinking Synutra from birth 'til now. Even though the issue has been ongoing for several days, the national departments have said that the levels of hormones are not out of the ordinary. But how many people actually believe this? Go look at an the results of any online survey and you'll know!

At the time of the 2008 melamine case, at that time it involved 20 domestic companies including Synutra. I remember the president of Synutra bowing in apology and saying that the problem was with domestically produced milk products, that there was no problem with the imported products. He stated that from that day forward Synutra would only use imported products. After the incident the national health inspectors went out to the market places to conduct random on-site quality inspections on all brands of milk powder, a bunch of really damn shamefull face licking! When the problem came up I recalled the inspections- your inspection department's level of work is all crap!

…The Synutra website says that its all imported from Europe, but I called customer service and they say its imported from New Zealand, a total contradiction! Absolutely the Synutra milk supplier has a problem! After this issue with the hormones came out, I saw the same words again: Government inspectors have already analyzed Synutra's milk powder. I'm telling you again- your inspections are all a bunch of crap! You only do something when there's a problem, normally every day you just sit at the office eating crap!…to think back at the way you cried and grovelled for the people's forgiveness during the melamine problem, really not as good as if we had just beat you to death with a big stick!

Solutions and Change needed

Obviously the situation can't be left like this, with consumers and parents furious and distrustful, turning away from domestic brands and looking overseas for solutions. The companies and government agencies have to step up and earn the respect and trust of the Chinese people and consumers by doing their duty- the government's duty to protect and investigate thoroughly and definitively, and the companies’ duties to regulate their own products’ health and safety to the highest degree to make sure problems don't arise in the first place.

As China continues its progress towards taking a place on the highest levels of global competition, it cannot afford to have its own domestic markets lost to overseas competition through internal incompetence and corruption. Without a solid domestic core how can the economy think to grow outward and keep developing?

A genuine and thorough investigation which finds the real cause and holds those responsible truly accountable is not only a social necessity on behalf of the people and parents of the country, but also an economic necessity so as not to lose consumer confidence in domestic brands to overseas competition.

The title of a post by ‘Big Bright Wolf’ (大辉狼) says it all: Already hopeless country! The tiny amount of public trust completely destroyed!(已经没救了的国度!那么一点点公信力彻底灭亡!)

He writes, in closing this piece:

如今检测结果已经显示圣元奶粉含有雌激素,卫生部为何还能得出“湖北女婴性早熟与圣元奶粉无关的结论”?????退一万步讲,即使这些女婴性早熟确实是另有原因,那么,从邓海华的发言看,圣元奶粉这样含有雌激素的奶粉品牌肯定得叫停。圣元奶粉事件绝不能就这样不了了之,卫生部应该就前后矛盾的言论作出解释,并对圣元奶粉事件给公众一个满意的处理结果。圣元奶粉何去何从,我们拭目以待!

The result's of today's analysis already show that Synutra's milk powder contains estrogen. Why is the Ministry of Health still saying “the premature sexual development and Synutra milk powder have no connection”? Stepping back 10,000 paces, even if the premature sexual development of these infant girls really is related to other causes, from Haihua Deng's statement, Synutra's products containing estrogen definitely will be stopped. It is unacceptable to leave the Synutra milk powder issue unsettled like this. The Ministry of Health should explain the contradictions from beginning to end, and regarding the Synutra milk powder case, give the general public a satisfactorily handled conclusion. Which route will Synutra choose to follow? We are all watching and waiting!

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