On the Conflict Between Sanlu and its Retailers: Analysis of the Conflict that Arose Out of China’s Economic Miracle

Considered as one of the manifestations of China’s economic miracle during the 1950’s, Sanlu once stood as “China’s largest formula supplier, producing one fifth of all the baby milk on the market, with sales of almost £1 billion in 2007” (Moore, 2005, p.3). The prestige associated with Sanlu however fell during 1995, as a result of the discovery [as well as the company’s admission] that it combined melamine with its milk products.

Melamine refers to “an industrial chemical more commonly found in plastics” (Moore, 2005, p.2). Several chemical reactions may occur when melamine is combined with milk: (1) ‘It boosts the milk’s nitrogen content thereby making it appear richer in protein’ and (2) ‘It allows milk to appear to be more ‘rich and wholesome’ in content’ (Moore, 2005, p.2).

Within this context, melamine’s aforementioned effects enable milk suppliers to have greater economic gain since their product will appear to possess the characteristics of‘rich and wholesome’ milk despite its content. Moore, in his article regarding the melamine scandal in China quotes the Royal Society of Chemistry who states that “adding one gram of melamine per litre of milk can make China’s cheapest grade of milk, or even specially treated water, appear to be rich and wholesome” (2005, p.2)

It is important to note at the onset that the use of melamine is an ‘open secret’ in China. Zhao Guiming, as he is quoted by Moore, states, “There has always been a culture of adding things into the food to make it go further…The practice has its roots back in 1949, when Chairman Mao’s policies spurred huge population growth” (2005, p.5). This culture is evident as farmers are aware not only of the use of melamine on milk but also on other liquids.

Moore states, “As well as melamine, farmers often added a gloopy yellow combination of fat and preservatives called ‘fresh-keeping liquid’. Some also poured in hydrogen peroxide to kill off bacteria” (2005, p.5).  The common use of melamine by these farmers however may not be solely attributed to economic greed but also to the conditions of the land. Moore states that “farmers used additives” in order to compensate for their unhealthy and ‘overworked’ lands (2005, p.5).

Despite the seemingly pragmatic nature of the use of melamine within China, a conflict however occurs as one considers the effects of the use of melamine in the milk products sold in the market. Zhung Zhe, in the article entitled “Feeding a Formula for Disaster” states that recorded casualties of melamine use in milk products [and other dairy products as well] has led to “six infant deaths and 294,000 others sickened by the products” (2009, p.1). Melamine leads to infants’ death since

When combined with cyanuric acid to form melamine cyanurate – it is in this form that it was added to Sanlu’s milk – it can cause the buildup of tiny crystals in the kidneys, which can block passageways and trigger the formation of kidney stones. Some scientists also suspect that melamine cyanurate can lead to bladder cancer and brain damage. (Moore, 2005, p.2)

The recent manifestation of infants with kidney problems has led the consumers within China to demand for compensation on the damages inflicted as a result of their adherence to the product in ‘good faith’.

Within this context, the application of the conflict theory in the melamine situation in China will show the following factor. First, the antecedent conflict of the melamine issue in China may be attributed to (1) the country’s cultural practices [i.e. the ‘open secret’ use of melamine amongst the farmers] and (2) the country’s economic goal [i.e. as a result of the country’s desire to create a strong market economy, it allowed the violation of the country’s citizens’ right to health].

Second, the perceived and felt conflict of the melamine issue in China can be seen in the following factors: (1) The majority of the citizens’ demand for compensation for the damages incurred to their health as well as to the health of their children [their demands for this being evident in their rallies for increased awareness through the use of both public protests and the internet] and (2)

The majority of the citizens’ demand to be recognized by the government [as a result of the government’s curtailment of the issue]. These manifestations of perceived and felt conflict stand as a reaction against the government’s curtailment of the issue as well as Sanlu’s refusal to be accountable for its actions as a result of its bankruptcy.

Lastly, the manifest conflict of the melamine issue in China can be seen in the following factors: (1) The development and creation of laws on food regulation within the country, (2) The abolishment of inspection exemption of the food product within the country, and (3) The development and creation of monitoring networks that aim to consider the scale of the melamine consumption’s effects across China.

As can be seen in the case of the melamine issue in China, the development of conflicts may be explained and may be solved through the consideration of the antecedent conflicts and the means through which this conflict may be solved by the individuals involved within it.


Moore, M., 2005. China Milk Scandal: Families of Sick Children Fight to Find Out True Scale of the Problem. Telegraph, [online]. Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/3545733/China-milk-scandal-Families-of-sick-children-fight-out-true-scale-of-the-problem.html [accessed 3 Dec. 2008]

Zhu, Z. (2009). Feeding a Formula for Disaster. China Daily, [online]. Available at: http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/cndy/2009-01/06/content_7368333.htm [accessed 14 May 2009]