Be it in pet foods across the U.S., infant milk powder in China or that country’s more recent discoveries of the ingredient in animal feed and eggs, melamine has seriously damaged the way Chinese view their food safety systems and has likely caused consumers the world over to reconsider exactly how their respective food agencies would respond in similar circumstances. For that matter, serious consequences from the melamine crisis are likely to be felt outside of China.

Thomas L. Friedman’s The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century delves into many topics, including the notion of a flat world--a world with a globalized supply chain and few, if any, trade barriers. China’s place in that supply chain has clearly fueled part of its ascent into a considerable economic power. However, as Friedman notes, a country’s position in that chain is precarious, and a public relations nightmare (like, say, the hospitalization of thousands and deaths of four infants) could well be the tipping point that prompts major corporations and businesses to rethink their supply resources.

Not helping matters was the government’s approach to the crises. News of the tainted milk powder did not break until weeks after Chinese officials had been informed. They had opted to keep the story under wraps until after the Olympics, a decision which the World Health Organization roundly chastised. The most recent melamine discovery was in eggs and tainted feed, a process that newspaper Nanfang Daily discovered was “an open secret” practiced for years, yet which had apparently garnered no regulatory or oversight attention.

In this “flat world,” the melamine scare was by no means confined to China. The crisis quickly led to testing around the world; melamine-tainted products were found in virtually every major country and prompted 11 countries to cease all imports of Chinese dairy products immediately. One tainted product was found in the U.S.; FDA stated no melamine is acceptable in baby formula, and it is only acceptable in an amount less than 2.5ppm in all other foods.

Trust can be a challenge to retain, but after the events of the past few months, China should well be worried about regaining the trust of its partners around the world, not to mention its own citizens. pf