August 12, 2015
Long form essay. Based on research I did last summer while studying as a Light Fellow through Yale. Note: In retrospect, I really don’t like the way it ends but I can’t think of another way to end it. If you have any suggestions, please let me know.
Nobody ever warned me about the milk. Avoid the street food, everyone told me. Especially meat; you have no idea where it’s been. Or what it’s from. So I left for my Beijing summer study abroad vowing to never eat mystery-meat kabobs off the street. But nobody breathed a single word about milk.
I found out the hard way while perusing a Beijing supermarket. I was minding my own business and buying non-street food snacks when I first saw people buying cartons of milk just sitting on the ground, without a refrigerator in sight. China, apparently, is a country where milk is sold unrefrigerated and could be stored that way for months.
I imagined pushing a squeaky shopping cart to the back of an American supermarket, where gallons of newly delivered milk chill in refrigerated displays lit by bright florescent lights. Every container is branded with small, black “Best Sold By” stamps to ensure it gets sold within a few days. Deviation from this paradigm seemed appalling. Milk that could stay unrefrigerated for more than 30 minutes seemed unnatural and frankly kind of gross. How could that stuff be safe to drink without liters of organ-mummifying chemicals?
It turns out that milk can be stored at room temperature for months if it’s processed with fancy equipment at extremely high temperatures (called Ultra High Temperature processed or UHT milk). But something about the milk in China still seemed suspect to me. Through deductive reasoning and anti-corporate bias, I turned my suspicions toward the dairy corporations. I became particularly drawn to one called Mengniu.
One of my teachers, a linguistics grad student, sipped a small carton of Mengniu (mung’-new-oh) milk every day for her breakfast. The carton had a simple, clean design and it was beautifully packaged. Sometimes her drink had the pictures of a celebrity plastered on the sides— movie stars and starlets, athletes, astronauts. I started to do my own research on Mengniu through the internet. The marketing and the company’s statements all confirmed my suspicions that Mengniu was trying to project an image of cleanliness. Everything just seemed a little too corporate, too boring, and too sterile.
China Mengniu Dairy Company Limited and its subsidiaries manufacture and distribute quality dairy products in China. It is one of the leading dairy product manufacturers in China, with MENGNIU as its core brand. Mengniu’s diversified products range includes liquid milk products (such as UHT milk, milk beverages and yogurt), ice cream, milk formula and other dairy products (such as cheese). Mengniu’s liquid milk products ranked first, in terms of sales volume and sales value, among similar products in China in 2013, according to the China Industrial Information Issuing Centre. By the end of December 2014, the Group’s annual production capacity reached 8.10 million tons. In March 2014, Mengniu became a Hang Seng Index constituent, making it the first blue chip Chinese dairy product manufacturer. - Official corporate profile, Mengniu webpage
The perfect opportunity to investigate Mengniu presented itself in early July when my study program organized a research trip to Inner Mongolia, the headquarters of the company. I traveled toward Huhhot, the capital of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, on a by sleeper train. It was a half-day’s ride from the Beijing Railway Station’s suffocating heat and sea of travelers.
The sun was beginning to set when I split a meal in a train’s dining car with my travel partner, Derek. It was a hodgepodge of six small red trays and bowls set on a white tray. Derek and I picked through the rice, tofu, cucumbers, watery soup, pickled radishes, small chunks of chicken, and an unidentified, fermented red paste. The hostess gave us a nasty glare for taking up two seats in the filled car and buying only one meal.
Mid meal, a round-faced woman, “on business,” plopped next to us and asked where we were from. We were both studying in Beijing for the summer and we were from the US, we said. “The US? You boys should go home.” We were slightly thrown off by this comment but she continued. “All the food in China is poison. The air, the water, the grass, the meat. It’s all poisoned.” She spoke of the government and businesses betraying their fellow Chinese people, all for the sake of profit-maximization.
I wouldn’t trust any of this food, she said, pointing at our set meal. I regretted trying the red mystery paste and grimaced a little.
In 2008, Mengniu was the most prominent company whose baby formula was discovered to have contained the chemical melamine. In all, six infants died and another 300,000 got sick, prompting the government to seek to overhaul the industry by pushing companies to consolidate.
Mengniu once again found itself thrust into an unflattering spotlight in 2011, when officials found excess levels of the chemical aflatoxin, a carcinogen, in its milk. The company has made steps to regain trust from consumers. In the aftermath of the 2008 scandal, for example, it set up consumer hot lines and offered apologies to customers.
- The Wall Street Journal
Six years ago today, sixteen infants in China’s Gansu Province were diagnosed with kidney stones. All of them had been fed milk powder that was later found to have been adulterated with a toxic industrial compound called melamine. Four months later, an estimated 300,000 babies in China were sick from the contaminated milk, and the kidney damage led to six fatalities. The Sanlu Group, one of the largest dairy producers in China, was identified as the chief culprit. But as the scandal unfolded, more Chinese dairy firms became implicated. The incident not only damaged the reputation of China’s food exports, but also dealt a devastating blow to the booming domestic dairy industry, leading to a series of mergers and consolidations. The inelastic baby formula market boosted the demand for foreign products—indeed, after 2009, more than 100 foreign brands flooded into the Chinese market. In hindsight, it is not an overstatement that the 2008 incident is one of the largest food safety scandals in PRC history.
Inner Mongolia is rapidly becoming more globalized, commercialized, and corporatized. I exited the Huhhot train station to the yells of hawkers, the honking of yellow taxi cabs, and flickering advertisements. Blue Mongolian script flowed down shop banners and illuminated signs. Next to the Mongolian words were translated Han characters—hotel, convenience store, pharmacy. The giant face of Colonel Sanders snickered down at me.
For the next few days, I met and interviewed Inner Mongolians in Huhhot. I mostly talked to students but I also chatted with bus drivers, store owners, and wage workers. It was hard for me to believe that just six years prior, the public had completely lost trust in the dairy industry and dairy products. Based on my brief interactions, the public overwhelmingly supported of Mengniu. While hanging out with a group of 8 high school students at their school, I asked for their opinions on Mengniu. They didn’t think much about the 2008 and 2011 scandals. “Every big company is occasionally going to have problems and Mengniu is one of the better companies,” says one of the students.
The students at Inner Mongolia University thought similarly. A student remarked that he likes Mengniu products and also appreciates the company’s work in the community. He’s swum and played badminton in a recreational center Mengniu constructed so he likes the ways that the company has helped Inner Mongolia. While riding around Huhhot in a bus, I also see the Mengniu logo on bridge and freeway construction.
I still remained skeptical but it seemed like Mengniu’s PR tactics were definitely working with the local population. It was unexpected but it appeared that consumer confidence, which had once completely evaporated, was very present again.
We spare no efforts to improve quality in every drop of our milk and to build our ecosystem and an open culture. With every tiny action we take, we are changing our own world. With these numerous efforts, we are becoming more confident than ever and changing our attitude towards work from purely assuming responsibility to devotion to it. We are changing our communication with customers from making our information transparent to frank interaction. We are leading your health and nutrition through continuous innovations more than satisfying your needs for food. More importantly, the revolution in the Internet is changing our communication means. We hope you can feel the warmth from us in every detail we make and choose our products through better understanding of Mengniu and Mengniu’s people once you refuse to turn down warmth and happiness. We highly value sharing and cooperation, and expect to jointly build and improve a sustainable ecosystem, to contribute and reward the society.
- Mengniu President, 2014 Corporate Social Responsibility Report
As soon as I walk into the glass covered Mengniu factory, a woman dressed like an airline stewardess hands me two navy shoe covers to keep the floor and factory clean. The atrium is a bright, heavenly white. I watch the projections all around the atrium, playing videos of cartoon pastures and happy, smiling people drinking milk. The factory’s atrium is a showroom of Mengniu’s modern practices and technologies. The projected message is “Our products are safe and healthy for you. We are not the same company of 2008 and 2011.” I’m still skeptical. This setup feels oddly sterile and artificial.
Another stewardess with straight bobbed hair ushers me and a small group along a tour of the factory. With a headset and microphone, she points to her right, past glass so clear that I’m afraid to breathe on it. I see large, shiny silver tanks, silver pipes, silver gauges. This actually does look surprisingly clean and modern, I think.
We amble past machines used in the process of sterilizing milk— we pass ones that fill bottles and tubes and cups, ones that arrange those bottles and tubes and cups, ones that seal those bottles and tubes and cups into packages. The factory floor is a giant Rube Goldberg machine that never ends. My eye follows products as they move from machine to machine. This is actually pretty fascinating, I wonder. I realize that I’m slowly being disarmed by the factory so I consciously remind myself to resist.
I watch blue robots stacking boxes of yogurt onto pallets for about 10 minutes. The shiny arms clamp an entire row of boxes and arrange them onto the pallet. Back and forth, the robot arms swing like metronomes, loading the yogurt onto pallets. It’s hypnotizing, almost bewitching.
I notice that there aren’t many people in the factory, except for the occasional person walking in a surgical gown, completely covered, even with goggles over the eyes. Just silver pipes and machines and robots. There’s one room where people sit staring at computer screens. But they don’t move and might as well be robots as they scroll through videos of the factory floor.
After the tour, we get a free mango ice cream. I feel slightly guilty for accepting the corporate bribe and then enjoying it so I decide to go on the offensive and interview the tour guide. I throw a punch. Why does Mengniu produce milk that can be stored for so long?
“Mengniu is committed to bringing clean and safe milk to the Chinese people. That is why the company uses UHT milk that can be kept without refrigeration safely for several months. Unlike the US, where people drink fresh milk that needs to be refrigerated, China lacks the infrastructure to deliver perishable milk and it is a luxury for all but a few. But Mengniu wants to serve the greater population and let as many people as possible enjoy the wonderful taste and nutrition of our dairy products.” That was actually pretty reasonable, I admit. So are there any preservatives? “No, none,” she assures me. “In fact, it’s the same UHT type of milk that people in many European countries drink.” Dang. I’m disappointed but refuse to back down.
I go for a last-resort low blow. Uh, so what about the 2008 and 2011 scandals? “The company has significantly reformed its practices since the milk-tainting scandals of the past. This exhibition factory serves as a model for the company as it moves forward. Mengniu will continue to integrate the most advanced practices into all aspects of its production and distribution of its products.” She smiled politely back at me. “Do you have any more questions?”
I want to ask a lot of other questions, like if machines are going to replace the workers or Mengniu’s role in globalization in Inner Mongolia, but I concede and say no. I leave the factory a little dejected that I didn’t succeed in coaxing out the gotcha moment I had hoped for. On the bus ride back, I think about how it’s still inaccurate to characterize Mengniu as a bastion of corporate responsibility. I wanted to hold the company responsible for its recent unethical practices. At the same time, it seemed hard to deny that the company was investing greatly into better practices. Even if Mengniu was motivated by self-preservation, it meant good things for the future Chinese consumer.
According to statistics, average milk consumption of Chinese people is less than 1/2 of world average, and the resulting acalcerosis attracted extensive attentions. We developed pure milk and yogurt products to help consumers keep by maintaining intestines and stomach dynamics and providing them with all necessary protein their bodies need. We have carefully studied the nutrition needs of various consumer groups including children, middle aged and elderly consumers and people with lactose intolerance, by which we researched on more dedicated and diverse products to cater for nutrition needs of special consumer groups.
- Mengniu 2014 Corporate Social Responsibility Report
The grasslands are a three or four hour bus ride from Huhhot. They were the wispy hairs of an old man; I had imagined a dark, dense Persian rug. No, a shepherd said, the rainy season hasn’t yet come in early July. The rains weren’t as heavy as they were before and the word “desertification” was suddenly something that could be tasted in the dust whipped up by the wind.
The air feels so lonely but people do live here. I visit a Mongolian shepherd’s house—two rooms of tan brick sitting on an overlook. On each side, runoff rainwater has carved deep ravines. His family—him, his wife, relatives a few miles out—tend flocks of hundreds of sheep for their wool, milk, and meat. All the horses they used for herding have been replaced by a shiny black and red motorcycle.
As I’m out in the back and looking at the newborn sheep in pens, I ask the shepherd if he drinks sheep’s milk. No, we only use the milk to feed the young sheep. When we get back inside, the shepherd offers me some milk, handing over a blue carton, which looks oddly familiar.
“Mengniu,” I remark, finally realizing. The carton feels so foreign out here but its UHT contents are perfect for the family’s living environment.
The shepherd takes us to the back of the house where two government-subsidized wind turbines in the back of the house. The turbines store energy in a large battery that powers the house as well as the family’s smartphones. Technologies seem so innocuous here. It’s as if the wildness of the place could absorb the blows of technology and modern development and still emerge unharmed.
I hope it remains that way. Mengniu’s Inner Mongolia, filled with sterile, silver machines has its place in a generic, globalized world. Still, I hope it is far from this shepherd’s Inner Mongolia, which is filled by grasslands and an austere, wild grandeur.