LINDA WERTHEIMER, Host:
Joining world leaders in New York this week is Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. Yesterday, he sought to reassure the world that China is cracking down on unsafe products. Milk tainted with the industrial chemical melamine has sickened thousands of children in China, but the problem has been going on for far longer than has been widely reported. That's what NPR's Louisa Lim found on a trip to central China when she met the man who first blew the whistle on China's milk industry.
LOUISA LIM: I'm at a milk collection station in rural Shanxi. It's a big shed with a corrugated iron roof and rows of modern milking machines, and the cows are brought here three times a day to be milked. And these milk collection stations are now at the heart of the scandal over contaminated milk which has sickened more than 50,000 Chinese infants.
JIANG WEISUO: (Through Translator) People added whey powder, protein, fat powder. Some people added antibiotics as an antibacterial. They also added formaldehyde.
LIM: Jiang Weisuo is the whistleblower who first tried to expose the milk industry's dirty secrets. He could do so because he's a major milk station operator in Shanxi.
WEISUO: (Through Translator) As for melamine, my understanding is that what we called protein powder could be melamine, as that also boosts the protein.
LIM: Milk stations provide equipment to milk the cows. They also act as middlemen, selling on the milk to bigger dairies. Jiang supplied one of China's biggest dairies, Yili, one of those found to be selling milk contaminated with melamine. He first realized something was amiss as long as three years ago.
WEISUO: (Through Translator) Other people were adulterating their milk and getting high prices for it. I was refusing to adulterate my milk and only getting very low prices. Adulterating milk means it makes more money, so insiders in the dairy can get kickbacks. I went five or six times to tell the dairy, but they never dealt with it adequately.
LIM: This problem started a long time ago says one farmer who'll only give his name as Wei, confirming the accusations.
WEISUO: (Chinese spoken)
LIM: Another farmer, Zhu Weigang, says ordinary farmers don't have the skills to doctor milk. I've never even heard of melamine before, he says. Locals accused the dairies of systematically abusing quality standards. A different station operator, who wouldn't be interviewed on tape, said the dairies demanded extremely high nutritional levels. If your milk didn't make the grade - for example, its protein levels were too low - the dairies would deduct money. So, some station operators were forced to doctor their milk by economic pressures. Others took the step willingly when they saw the price of milk rising. One estimate is that a kilo of milk could sell for four times its value after chemicals were added. But Jiang Weisuo refused.
WEISUO: (Through Translator) There were reprisals. I'd report problems, and immediately people would stop buying milk. The economic pressures on me were huge. I lost tens of thousands of dollars. There was a price on my head, with people offering money to have me killed. In the end, my family was shattered and my wife divorced me.
LIM: But Jiang was on a mission. Two years ago, he visited 12 provinces to investigate the dairy industry. He was on an influential television program and featured in one of China's boldest newspapers last year. As early as 2006, Jiang made several official complaints to the government department responsible for quality inspection. He says they initially made some arrests, but it stopped there. When asked how the practice of doctoring milk could have continued for so long, he blames a conspiracy of silence, a lack of corporate oversight, and untrammeled greed.
WEISUO: (Through Translator) These big dairies have amazing public relations machines, especially towards the media and the government. So the media wasn't allowed to report it.
LIM: It's not exactly clear when unscrupulous operators started adding the toxic chemical melamine to milk. But it is clear that local authorities in Xian, and at least one of the dairies, have known for at least two years that milk was being contaminated. Whistleblower Jiang Weisuo says he wishes he'd done more.
WEISUO: (Through Translator) I feel very guilty. It's awful that so many children have had problems. I should have risked my life to go to Beijing to tell our leaders, and maybe things would have changed for the better.
LIM: Dairy farmers are now facing ruin. Demand for milk has plummeted. Many consumers will never trust Chinese milk again, one farmer tells me, his face lined with worry. Another begs me, please don't report the truth. If you do, it will kill the Chinese dairy industry entirely. Louisa Lim, NPR News, Shanxi Province, China.
WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News.