Federal Court Sends Melamine Contamination Claims To China

A federal court recently sent back to China various Chinese families' product liability cases stemming from alleged melamine contamination of infant formula. See Tang v. Synutra International Inc., 2010 WL 1375373 (D. Md.).

Plaintiffs, one hundred Chinese citizens residing in China, brought suit on their own behalf as parents and on behalf of fifty-three minor children who allegedly suffered adverse health
conditions, predominantly the development of kidney stones, as a result of ingesting contaminated milk products produced by Defendants’ Chinese subsidiaries.  The principal place of business of both defendants, Synutra International, Inc., and Synutra, Inc., is in Maryland. Plaintiffs sought compensatory damages of at least $5.5 million for each child and $1.5 million for each parent, as well as a collective punitive damages award of $500 million. Defendants filed their motion to
dismiss on, inter alia,  the grounds of forum non conveniens.

In September 2008, the Chinese Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and
Quarantine (“AQSIQ”) initiated an emergency testing program of the country’s dairy supplies. Later that month, AQSIQ announced that certain lots of infant formula were found to have contained melamine, a chemical commonly used as an industrial component in plastics, adhesives, countertops, etc.  Melamine is not a food additive. It is not approved for human consumption.

By December 2008, approximately 300,000 Chinese infants were found to have ingested dairy products contaminated with melamine. Allegedly as a result, at least six infants have died and scores of others have required medical treatment for maladies associated with kidney damage. AQSIQ found varying amounts of melamine in sixty-nine batches of infant milk powder produced by several companies, including defendants' subs. In response to this crisis, the Chinese government, in conjunction with the China Dairy Industry Association, established a compensation program, funded by the dairy companies, that produced the contaminated milk products and totals approximately $160 million. It offered a lump-sum payment to the families of affected children, according to the extent of injury. To date, the families of approximately ninety-five percent of the injured children have reportedly accepted the remedies provided by the plan. Of those who have not, some have opted instead to bring suits in Chinese or U.S. courts.

The adequacy of the Chinese courts to adjudicate these suits was a significant point of contention between the parties; indeed, it was the critical factor of the forum non conveniens analysis in this case.

At the outset of any forum non conveniens inquiry, the court must determine whether there exists an alternative forum. The defendant bears the burden of establishing that the alternative forum is
available to all parties and that an adequate remedy is available to the plaintiff.  Although some courts conflate these issues, the availability and adequacy of the supposed forum are better seen as raising independent issues that warrant separate consideration by the court.

Ordinarily, a defendant can satisfy the availability element by showing that it is “amenable to process” in the alternative forum. Where the remedy offered by the alternative forum is so clearly inadequate or unsatisfactory that it is no remedy at all, however, the court may conclude that dismissal would not be in the interests of justice. Many courts have presumed the adequacy of the alternative forum and placed at least the burden of production on the plaintiff to establish otherwise.

Although plaintiffs here challenged both the availability and adequacy of the alternative forum to adjudicate their claims, there was no question in the court's mind that the Chinese forum was
available, since the defendant showed that it is “amenable to process” in the alternative forum.

Whether China constitutes an adequate forum was the primary issue in dispute. The dispute as to the adequacy of the Chinese forum boiled down to the competing declarations of the parties' China law experts. Defendants’ declarant opined that Chinese courts are adequate to resolve plaintiffs’ dispute and described that Chinese law provides causes of action for personal injury and products liability, a right to present evidence and argument in court, the power to compel witness testimony, and a right to appeal. Plaintiffs would be entitled to recover compensatory damages for expenses such as loss of income, related travel expenses, food subsidies, living expenses for dependents, as well as compensation for emotional damages, but not punitive damages.

Plaintiffs' experts claimed that “several volunteer milk attorneys” were summoned to a meeting held at the Beijing Bureau of Justice, a government entity, where an official demanded all attorneys to withdraw from representation on tainted-milk cases. The experts also asserted that the Chinese courts have denied litigants access to the courts, as well as the right to appeal an adverse ruling, because none of the complaints filed by contaminated-milk victims has been “either accepted or formally denied,”  resulting in the cases remaining perpetually in limbo. They also asserted that families of “seriously sickened children” receive $4,400, and “those suffering from other kidney problems” receive $292 under the government compensation scheme, and this is not “a legal remedy,” but rather “a settlement offer" made by the dairy companies,  In essence, plaintiffs asserted that the Chinese courts were deviating from normal process with respect to melamine claims and pressuring lawyers to withdraw representation of these claimants, thereby forcing the
unfortunate victims into a Hobson’s choice between pursuing futile litigation or accepting the "meager remedy" provided by the compensation program.

The court granted the motion, finding China an adequate forum.  The guiding principles included that the prospect of delay presented by the alternative forum does not typically render the alternative forum inadequate. The complaints had not yet been rejected in China. The court was not wiling to make the value judgment, on the basis of what it called limited evidence presented, that corruption in the Chinese judiciary would systematically deny access to a legal remedy there.  Courts have traditionally been reluctant to cast such aspersions on foreign judicial systems absent a substantial showing of a lack of procedural safeguards.

Second, even if the Chinese courts were not open to plaintiffs, another remedy was indisputably available to them, namely, the compensation program. While the plaintiffs characterized the
program as a “government-sanctioned settlement plan” from the companies that produced the contaminated milk products, as opposed to a legal remedy , they cited no authority for the proposition that the available remedy need be purely “legal” in nature. Regardless of whether it was enacted by the Chinese legislature or sanctioned by the judiciary, it is undisputed that the compensation program developed in China in the wake of the melamine contamination crisis was organized and sanctioned by government entities working in conjunction with the dairy industry and administered through an insurance provider.

Third, although the remedy offered by the compensation program was far less lucrative than what plaintiffs sought in the U.S., the courts have made clear, that the test is not to compare the rights, remedies, and procedures available under the law that would be applied in each forum to determine whether the law applied by the alternative forum is as favorable. 

China Melamine Suits to Proceed

When one thinks of global mass tort issues, questions of actions by European citizens in U.S. courts or the spate of class actions in Canada may come to mind. Perhaps we will need a broader perspective, as the courts in China have reportedly given the green light to suits arising out of the distribution of tainted dairy products. We have posted on this issue before, within the larger context of product issues arising from goods made in China.

The move signals an apparent change in the way Beijing is handling fallout from the melamine scandal, which was implicate din the death of at least six infants and sickening of nearly 300,000 others with kidney problems. A government-sanctioned compensation plan had been proposed to resolve the issues, but a large number of families have refused government compensation because it is too small, electing instead to try to sue. Under the payout plan organized by the dairies, families whose children died would have received 200,000 yuan ($29,000), while others received 30,000 yuan ($4,380) for serious cases of kidney stones and 2,000 yuan ($290) for less severe cases.

Plaintiffs needed government permission to bring suit, and it remains unclear how the government plans to handle the cases. Chinese courts often turn down class-action or group action suits, preferring to deal with cases one by one to avoid running afoul of Communist Party officials, who ultimately control the judiciary.

The crisis highlighted the need for major overhauls to China's food safety system, culminating in a law passed recently that proposes to consolidate hundreds of regulations covering the country's 500,000 food processing companies.
 

China To Set Up Food Safety Commission

China will set soon up a central food safety commission, according to state-owned media last week. The new commission will be organized under the State Council, and is to help enforce new food-safety legislation meant to tighten supervision of manufacturers and impose tougher penalties on those who manufacturer defective items. The new law, approved by the standing committee of the National People's Congress, has been in the making for two years. It also sets up a system to recall problem products and authorizes the enforcement of uniform nationwide standards on nutritional labeling.


Reportedly, the commission's task will be "to strengthen the country's food monitoring system, whose low efficiency has long been blamed for repeated food scandals," as China seeks to restore public confidence after a number of problems with tainted food. Presumably, that refers in part to the melamine scandal in which at least six infants died last year and nearly 300,000 were sickened by baby formula tainted by an industrial chemical that had been added to milk supplies to give the appearance of higher protein.


How effectively China maintains the safety of its food supply is increasingly important to consumers in other countries as well, as Chinese ingredients end up in foodstuffs sold around the world. Between 2004 and 2007, Chinese food exports climbed about 63%. Several tainted Chinese products led to mass tort litigation in the U.S.


The national food-safety commission is supposed to coordinate work by other government agencies, and reduce the number of agencies involved. United Nations public health experts last year called for an overhaul of China's food-safety system, criticizing the country's use of a patchwork of various local and national government agencies to police the food supply.
 

China Melamine Update

Readers of MassTortDefense have been following the issues surrounding the dairy product contamination scandal in China, which we have posted on before.

Two recent developments: The families of 213 children who were sickened by tainted infant formula and milk have now filed a class-action lawsuit with China's highest court, seeking damages from 22 dairy producers. Class actions are rare in China; this one seeks damages mainly for parents whose children were made ill by melamine-laden dairy products, but who were offered what they saw as inadequate compensation by dairy companies. Under that plan, most received $292, while wrongful death cases were offered $29,200. Plaintiffs assert that the lower amounts were not enough to cover what they paid for doctors, medicines and other expenses.


According to the Chinese Health Ministry, nearly 300,000 children were made ill by tainted milk and at least six died. Melamine was reportedly added to milk products to fool protein-content tests.
In order for the class suit to proceed, the China Supreme Court must first agree to hear the case. Court filings in China must be accepted by the courts before they are considered on the merits.

On the criminal side, media reports are that 12 dairy officials were found guilty of charges related to the melamine issue; 2 were sentenced to death, and the highest ranking official was sentenced to life in prison as part of a plea bargain deal. Prosecutors showed that officials at the companies involved learned of the problem in 2007 but did not recall any products until September, 2008. 

In its latest update, FDA notes that there is no known threat of contamination in infant formula manufactured by companies that have met the requirements to sell such products in the United States.  In addition, the FDA -– in conjunction with state and local officials – continues to check Asian markets for food items that are imported from China and that could contain a significant amount of milk or milk proteins.

The FDA has broadened its domestic and import sampling and testing of milk-derived ingredients and finished food products containing milk or milk-derived ingredients from Chinese sources. FDA has recommended that consumers not consume certain products because of possible contamination with melamine.


 

China Melamine Update

China's Dairy Industry Association announced last week that the Chinese dairy companies accused of producing contaminated milk-containing products have agreed to pay compensation.  Reports are that nearly 300,000 people (mostly kids) were sickened, and six reportedly died.  Baby formula was contaminated with melamine, apparently an intentional act to deceive protein quality control testing.  Melamine artificially increases the protein profile of the milk, but can cause kidney damage at higher doses.

MassTortDefense has posted on the issues before.

The settlement includes an immediate payment of $130 million, and $30 million to cover future medical bills for related health problems.  Wrongful death cases will receive a reported $30,000, and seriously sick kids' families will get $4000.  Some 28,000 product users were hospitalized.

Many officials responsible for quality control and inspection of the dairy industry have been fired or indicted.  Trials are ongoing for 17 such defendants, and the former head of the largest dairy outfit was to be charged last week with manufacturing and selling counterfeit goods. That company, the Sanlu Group, ceased operations and filed for the equivalent of bankruptcy in the Fall.

China is also reportedly revising its regulatory approach to the dairy industry, with new safety and quality standards, new testing approaches, and more tools to enable local governments to catch issues.

 

Study Released Of Low Level Melamine Effects In Children

Low doses of melamine did not cause severe kidney problems in children exposed to the industrial chemical during the recent tainted milk scandal arising from China, according to researchers reporting last week. In Lam, et al., Renal screening in children after exposure to low dose melamine in Hong Kong: a cross sectional study, 337 BMJ 2991 (2008), no severe adverse renal outcomes, such as acute renal failure or urinary tract obstruction, were detected in children after exposure to low doses of melamine. The results were similar to initial findings by other scientists in Hong Kong. The prevalence of suspected melamine related abnormalities on ultrasonography was only 0.2%.

The researchers looked at more than 3,000 children aged 12 or younger. All of them had consumed melamine-tainted products for a month or more. Every child was given a urine test, and an ultrasound was performed on their kidneys. Only one child had a kidney stone, and seven had possible melamine-related deposits in their kidneys. An additional 208 tested positive for blood in their urine, a possible sign of kidney troubles.

The study is one of the first to measure the health impact of exposure to low doses of melamine, which was apparently added to infant formula and other foods in mainland China to boost their protein content and help them pass muster on protein tests. Some contaminated products were sold in Hong Kong, but the researchers noted that those products contained much lower concentrations of melamine than the tainted products sold in mainland China.

Since early September, melamine-contaminated baby formula has sickened more than 54,000 children in China and is being blamed for at least four deaths. Melamine has been detected outside China in candies, chocolates, and coffee drinks.  This latest finding may suggest that outside of China, the chances are more remote of a similar level of injury. MassTortDefense has posted on the issues here and here.
 

FDA Issues Import Alert For China Dairy Products

The FDA continues to take action to attempt to limit the impact of the China milk scandal on U.S. consumers. As part of its ongoing strategy to address the present problem with melamine contamination of consumer products exported from the People’s Republic of China, FDA has expanded its import controls on Chinese dairy products, and food and feed products manufactured in China that contain dairy ingredients. Candy, snacks, bakery products, pet food and other Chinese products that contain milk will now be detained at the border until tests prove that they are not contaminated. This action was taken to help ensure that only those Chinese dairy products (and food and feed products manufactured in China that contain dairy ingredients) which are not contaminated with melamine and melamine-related compounds reach U.S. consumers.

No adverse health effects have been reported in the United States from contamination with melamine of dairy products or dairy containing products. But melamine is not approved for direct addition to human or animal foods and no manufacturer is allowed to deliberately add it to any food for U.S. consumers.  Since melamine was discovered in infant formula in September it apparently has sickened more than 50,000 infants in China and killed at least four. Since that time, melamine has been found in a wide range of other products, including milk, eggs and fish feed. Testing by the FDA has detected melamine and cyanuric acid, a related contaminant, in a number of products that contain milk or milk-derived ingredients, including candy and beverages, according to the FDA alert. China is also one of the world’s biggest makers of supplements, and some protein powders and shakes are made largely with powdered milk.


The agency has at times blocked imports of individual food products, but it is rare for it to block an entire category of one country’s foods. The widely spread assessment is that food and feed dealers in China added melamine to their products because it increases nitrogen content to give the appearance in testing that protein levels meet specifications.

Concern has been expressed about delays spilling over to other food imports, but the FDA said the percentage of food subject to the import alert is small. Another possible issue is that private laboratories which perform product tests for FDA compliance already reportedly have long waiting lists. The agency said it won't release the imported food unless an independent laboratory verifies that representative samples contain no melamine or cyanuric acid, a melamine derivative.
At a broader level, one wonders what the alert may do to the recently negotiated opening of FDA offices in China. The timing of the FDA alert coincides with an upcoming  meeting between Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt and top Chinese health officials in Beijing.
 

FDA Updates Plans For Foreign Offices

The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) should be opening its new China office later in 2008. In the past couple years, as posted here at MassTortDefense, multiple imports from China have been at the center of safety concerns. Earlier this year, heparin allegedly contaminated with a counterfeit ingredient was blamed by some plainitff attorneys for some patient deaths; FDA has issued recalls of several foods imported from China that may have apparently been tainted with the industrial chemical melamine, which has been added to dairy products and resulted in hospitalization of thousands of children in China.

FDA staff posted at the China office will inspect facilities, provide guidance on U.S. quality standards, and later train local experts to conduct inspections on behalf of the FDA. The FDA will eventually open offices in the Chinese cities of Shanghai and Guangzhou, for a total of eight planned FDA staffers. The agency hopes a greater on the ground presence in China will help prevent unsafe imports, and the opening of a Beijing, China office later this year is just the first step in the FDA’s plan to expand its presence overseas. Over the next year, the agency plans to place as many as 60 food and drug regulators in offices worldwide, focusing on India, Latin America and the Middle East. The plan for permanent outposts marks a break from the agency's current practice of sending inspectors abroad on individual assignments.

Part of an updated import inspection plan may be to allow voluntary inspection, where manufacturers would pay third-party inspectors to verify that their plants meet FDA standards, although past attempts at a voluntary inspections system haven’t been well received by some overseas manufacturers. Democrats in the House of Representatives, offering yet another alternative, have proposed a program that would require companies to pay mandatory user fees to help finance additional FDA inspections.

Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Levitt is scheduled to travel to China next month to meet with health officials there to review joint efforts to ensure the safety of food and medical imports. The Consumer Product Safety Commission also worked to get people stationed in China. Under the current plan, the CPSC staffers who will be sent there eventually are not full inspectors. Their purpose will be to provide technical assistance to Chinese manufacturers and regulators.
 

FDA Releases Melamine Risk Assessment

The FDA has issued the results of its interim safety and risk assessment of melamine and melamine-related compounds in food, including infant formula. The purpose of the FDA interim safety/risk assessment, which was conducted by scientists in the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, was to identify the level of melamine and melamine-related compounds in food which would not raise public health concerns.

For infant formula, the safety/risk assessment concludes that at this time FDA is unable to establish any level of melamine and melamine-related compounds in infant formula that does not raise public health concerns. Melamine in baby formula has sickened more than 54,000 infants in China. The government there ordered the recall of more than 10,000 tons of formula. Last week, 12 more Chinese dairy companies were named as violators after tests found 31 batches of milk powder contaminated with melamine.Chinese officials believe that the contamination was intentional and  occurred at milk collecting stations, rather than on dairy farms. MassTortDefense has posted on this before.

In food products other than infant formula, the safety/risk assessment concludes that levels of melamine and melamine-related compounds below 2.5 ppm do not raise public health concerns. This conclusion assumes a worst case exposure scenario in which 50% of the diet is contaminated at this level, and applies a 10-fold safety factor to the Tolerable Daily Intake (TDI) to account for uncertainties.


According to the CDC, melamine is a synthetic chemical with a variety of industrial uses including the production of resins and foams, cleaning products, fertilizers and pesticides. It does not occur naturally in food. Animal studies have demonstrated that exposure to low levels of melamine produced no observable toxic effects. Exposures to high levels of melamine, or exposures to lower doses of melamine together with certain other chemicals, have caused urinary tract problems in animals. These have included urinary tract and kidney crystal and stone formation, and kidney failure. Exposures of animals to high doses of melamine over long time periods (years) have been associated with cancer of the bladder.

Because melamine is a component in plastics, there may be melamine in dinnerware, cups, and even Formica counter tops. But the amount of melamine that actually transfers from those products into food is very, very small, according to FDA.


Several melamine-contaminated foods found in recent weeks in the United States had far more than that amount of the chemical. White Rabbit candies from China were recalled after authorities in at least two states found melamine. And a New Jersey company announced that it was recalling Blue Cat Flavor Drink, after FDA testing found melamine. The chemical has also turned up in dairy products sold across Asia and, to a lesser extent, Europe.


The FDA guidelines were issued to help federal and state investigators checking for contaminated Chinese products as they enter the country and in grocery stores. To date, there have been no reports of illness from contaminated Chinese milk products in the United States. There are no approved uses for melamine to be added to food in the United States.

Melamine contamination was at the center of the tainted pet food scandal that resulted in more than 80 class actions and the creation of MDL 1850.  The federal judge overseeing the multidistrict pet food litigation has just issued final approval of a $24 million settlement that seeks to resolve claims over a massive recall of more than 90 contaminated dog and cat foods last year.

 

China Dairy Product and Infant Formula Issues Grow

Quality control investigators in China have announced they had found a dangerous protein substitute in dairy products produced by 20% of the Chinese companies that make infant formula. Reports are that more than 12,000 children had been hospitalized, most with kidney ailments, and 40,000 with less severe symptoms have been treated without admission. At least three have been killed.

Melamine, a protein imitator that is toxic, was used as a cheaper fill, and was found in the test samples. Melamine is the same protein replacement used in the Chinese-made pet food that killed thousands of cats and dogs last year.

What is the impact for readers of MassTortDefense? Several major Chinese dairy companies involved have international investors. But none of the formula products were exported to North America. The FDA said there is no known threat of contamination in infant formula manufactured by companies that have met requirements to sell the formula in the United States. However, FDA is investigating whether infant formula manufactured in China is being sold in markets here that serve the Asian community. And the FDA is alerting consumers that seven "Mr. Brown" instant coffee and milk tea products are being recalled by a Taiwanese company, due to possible contamination with melamine.

The developing food safety scandal has called into question, yet again, the effectiveness of China’s quality control system in general, and the country's new food safety regime in particular. Last year’s spate of product recalls, including drugs, toys, pet food and tires, placed the spotlight on China's quality control problems. MassTortDefense has posted on this here and here. Now comes the news that the newly enacted food safety recall system was not activated for at least two weeks after the problem became known to local officials, and the prime minister of New Zealand (an importer) charged the matter was covered up for several weeks while the Beijing Olympics were underway. Thus, thoughts naturally turn to efforts importers may mitigate the risks. A recent article in Risk Management Magazine offers a broad perspective on this. (Kent Kedl, Risk Strategies for the Chinese Market , published by the Risk and Insurance Management Society, which targets corporate risk managers.) At bottom, it is risk management to avoid a potential mass tort.

First, plan Strategy before Structure. In recent years, the Chinese government has changed its investment regulations to allow --and even encourage-- a variety of business arrangements, from strategic partnerships to wholly foreign-owned enterprises, to full acquisitions. RM suggests that companies coming to China must first ignore the "how" of structure and first focus on the "why" of their strategic intent for China: What products will have the most play? What segments of the market should they target? What distribution channels should they use? Who will be the major competition and how can they structure a defensible and sustainable value proposition?

Second, they advise companies to Get Close to the Market. Clearly, there are Chinese factories that have had quality issues, but the fact remains that there are millions of products coming out of China every month, most of which have no problems whatsoever. Maybe, then, the question should be how best to manage product quality, because someone is doing it right. Kedl and RM suggest that foreign companies need to manage their vendors on an ongoing basis. Meet with suppliers; validate the supply chain; don’t worry about price and on-time delivery to the exclusion of all else. Companies sourcing from China should consider putting their own people on the ground to manage their supply chain, establish and monitor their own quality systems, and maintain ongoing relationships with the vendors. This approach may raise a company's fixed costs but, in the long run, may greatly lower the risk associated with having products made in an emerging market.

Third, recognize that Relationships Matter. Early successful foreign entrants to China worked hard to build a relationship network for themselves. As China has developed a more credible legal framework and a more predictable market environment, however, foreign companies too often have believed they no longer need that social network and that, instead, they can do it on their own. RM suggests that may be a mistake.

Ongoing events put a premium on efforts by both China and the U.S. in implementing the 2007 Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) on food and feed safety. The MOA established a bilateral mechanism to provide greater information and other assurances to enhance the safety of food and feed products traded between the two countries. The countries have improved the exchange of information on food safety and on the relevant regulatory systems. The U.S. has agreed to conduct training for Chinese officials on U.S. regulatory standards. Each has designated new emergency contacts and notification thresholds for import safety issues. The two countries have also been working towards an electronic certification system between the FDA and China's General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine to ensure that Chinese exports meet FDA standards for safety and manufacturing quality. The countries also agreed to increase their focus on inspection, supervision and laboratory testing of Chinese imports. Finally, the report described the establishment of a cooperative mechanism to notify each other of significant risks to public health related to product safety or the gross deception of consumers, and to share information to facilitate each other’s investigation.