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School Tragedy Exposes Local Interference
Almost a month has passed since mass food poisoning in Haicheng, Northeast China's Liaoning Province, affected some 3,000 elementary school students. Anxious parents and the public are still waiting for explanations as to the cause of the contamination, while many victims are even now confined to sickbeds.

If the local government has failed to answer basic questions such as "what toxin was responsible" and "who is to blame," a much more satisfactory reply is expected soon from a Ministry of Health investigation team that is working hard on the case in the area.

Although the real story is yet to be told, it is now clear that a certain kind of soya milk is the culprit. According to a People's Daily story, about 4,900 students from eight elementary schools in Haicheng drank soya milk between classes on March 19, and 2,556 of them became sick. Apart from stomachaches, headaches, dizziness and twitching, many have also developed serious complications.

The soya milk was produced by the Anshan-based Baorun Milk Co, a Sino-US joint venture based in Anshan, Liaoning Province. The company as well as some parents and doctors treating the students suspect it is a case of deliberate poisoning. A representative of the company went further, saying that a competitor was to blame as the soya milk from the same batch delivered to other schools had not had any negative effects.

Putting aside the possibility of criminal tampering and even more venal motives, the Haicheng case should be remembered forever as a bitter lesson and highlight the need to improve food safety in schools.

When it was revealed the suspect soya milk was recommended by the local educational authorities, the Haicheng City Educational Commission came under immediate fire. The commission began to recommend soya milk to schools under its jurisdiction in 2000 in line with a national scheme promoting its consumption by children.

There is nothing wrong with recommending soya milk drinks to schools with the aim of improving students' health. However, it is totally wrong for a government body to assign a certain brand to schools.

For one thing, it should not meddle in a decision that should be left to the market. The government may have good intentions, but the practice not only risks distorting the market but can give rise to under-the-table deals or even corruption.

Regrettably, the Haicheng's educational authorities are not alone in recommending a particular brand of soya milk to schools. Their counterparts in many places have done the same when introducing the national scheme of popularizing soya milk drinks or recommending other foods as snacks for students.

Such practices are legacies from the planned economy, when governments were entitled to interfere in microeconomic activities. While China is now working towards a stronger market economy, it seems there is still a long way to go before governments at all levels change their mindset accordingly.

Until every government understands their role in a market economy, there is no guarantee the Haicheng case will not repeat itself in the future in some form. Hence, neither the public nor the government should slacken their vigilance.

(China Daily April 16, 2003)

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