XUZHOU, CHINA — Before
Mao Lijun's business exported tainted wheat products that
may have killed American pets, his factory sickened people
and plants around here for years.
Farmers in this poor rural area about 400 miles northwest of
Shanghai had complained to local government officials since
2004 that Mao's factory was spewing noxious fumes that made
their eyes tear up and the poplar trees nearby shed their
leaves prematurely. Yet no one stopped Mao's company from
churning out bags of food powders and belching smoke — until
one day last month when, in the middle of the night,
bulldozers arrived and tore down the facility.
It wasn't authorities that finally acted: Mao himself razed
the brick factory — days before the investigators from the
U.S. Food and Drug Administration arrived in China on a
mission to track down the source of the tainted pet food
In the end, Chinese authorities caught up with Mao and
arrested him. And Tuesday, after weeks of denials, China
acknowledged that Mao's company and another Chinese business
had illegally exported wheat and rice products spiked with
melamine, a chemical used in making plastics and
fertilizers. That chemical is banned in foods in the U.S.
China's watchdog agency said the businesses had added
melamine to the food ingredients "in a bid to meet the
contractual demand for the amount of protein in the
products." Melamine can make animal feed appear to have more
protein than it actually does.
Besides turning up in pet food, melamine has been found in
feed for thousands of hogs and millions of chickens in the
U.S. The FDA said Tuesday that melamine-contaminated foods
also were fed to fish raised for human consumption. But in
each case, U.S. officials said there was little risk to
The FDA also said that although the tainted Chinese products
were labeled as wheat gluten and rice protein, they were
actually ordinary wheat flour — with melamine and related
Melamine producers in China have said that melamine scrap, a
cheaper form of the chemical, has been widely sold to
entrepreneurs who use it to fool farmers into thinking that
they are getting higher-nutrient animal feeds. Among the
apparent buyers of melamine scrap were Mao, head of Xuzhou
Anying Biologic Technology Development Co., and Binzhou
Futian Biology Technology Co. in Shandong province.
Liu Zhaoyi, 64, a farmer who lives next to Mao's
now-demolished factory, recalled seeing globs of white and
yellowish scrap, which may have included melamine, piled in
the yard behind the plant.
One season after rains, Liu said, water with residue from
the compound flowed into his family's cornfields and killed
"He gave me only 100 yuan when my corn was all dead," Liu
said of Mao. That is the equivalent of about $13 today.
Few people in town, which has a large food manufacturing
industry, seemed to know what Mao's factory made.
An Environment Protection Bureau official in Pei county,
which is a part of Xuzhou, said one of his colleagues had
visited Mao's facility in recent years when it was
processing yeast and wheat. The inspection did not turn up
any serious violations, and neighbors were told to complain
to a court or another agency.
In recent days, Mao's company removed wheat gluten from the
product offerings on its website. It also deleted something
called ESB protein powder.
Xuzhou Anying had advertised the powder as its "latest
researched, developed and produced" item and touted it as "a
new way to solve the problem of shortage of protein
resource." Several people with experience in China's food
industry say such powders are invariably made with melamine.
Melamine itself isn't considered particularly toxic, but
researchers believe that another compound, cyanuric acid,
may also have been added to the pet food ingredients by
Chinese firms or formed as a byproduct. Combined with
melamine, it can cause a chemical reaction — forming
crystals and blocking kidney function in some animals.
Cai Kesen, president of No. 1 Flour Factory of Pei county,
said unadulterated wheat gluten from China certainly would
not have caused a scandal. The quality of the region's wheat
last year was the best in a decade, he said.
Cai vaguely recalled meeting Mao once. His company was
small, he said, and it was common for such businesses to add
words like "biologic" and "technology" to their names to get
government subsidies intended for advanced enterprises.
Xuzhou Anying's website posted certificates claiming, among
other things, that it had won top quality grades from
various organizations, none of which could be verified.
China's General Administration of Quality Supervision,
Inspection and Quarantine said Tuesday that Xuzhou Anying
and Binzhou Futian had evaded quality checks by labeling
their products as exports not subject to inspection.
Farmer Liu said it was a shame that officials failed to heed
earlier complaints. "If they had done more, this company
won't have such a big problem."
Lee reported from Xuzhou and Goldman from Los Angeles.