On September 11, 2008, Sanlu the largest Chinese producer of powdered milk-based infant formula recalled all their powdered milk formulas that were made before August 6, 2008. This safety recall was issued due to dairy products in China being tainted with melamine, a compound used to make plastics. Fonterra, a New Zealand company that partners with Sanlu was informed of the problem several weeks before the recall. Despite their repeated directives to make the public aware of the tainted milk product, executives at Sanlu refused.
Melamine was used to boost the apparent protein content of watered down baby formula and other milk products. Due to its chemical composition and the processes employed to produce melamine; it registers as a protein when tested. During the investigation, it was found that in addition to Sanlu, 21 other dairy producing companies also used the melamine-tainted baby formula and dairy products. Four years earlier many babies died from malnutrition after drinking watered down baby formula.
A total of 36 people were arrested in connection to the baby formula recall in China of 2008. The accused consisted of buyers, farmers, producers and sellers of the melamine-tainted baby formula. Of this number two were executed, and three were sentenced to life imprisonment.
Following the investigation it was noted that many other products had been tainted with melamine including eggs, chicken and other foods that were milk-based such as candies and bakery items. Additionally many other countries were affected by this disaster since it either produced goods in China or used milk products from China in its production.
China has been criticized for slack regulatory practices regarding its food supply. Random food samples were found to have illegal amounts of melamine as late as 2010. Many countries have responded to this disaster by establishing regulatory entities within China to ensure that the food products are safe. Many other countries have discontinued the import of Chinese-made dairy products. Of special concern is the governmental control over the information that reaches the public.
With this disaster, many Chinese took it upon themselves to be proactive in sharing information among the victims, as well as produce content highlighting food production practices. One father of a victim of the tainted baby formula was arrested when he began a website for the parents of victims to share their stories. An artist that created an animated series regarding how the disaster could be avoided in the future found his content was banned from public view.
A total of nine lawsuits were filed against Sanlu. The government discouraged attorneys from taking the cases of the victims. Attorneys were encouraged to act in the interest of public stability.