Scandal leaves sour aftertaste for sweets

October 6, 2008 12:00 am

, SHANGHAI, October 6 – China’s creamy White Rabbit sweets survived Japan’s World War II occupation and the Communist Revolution, but the tainted milk crisis has cast doubt on the future of the well-known brand.

Sales of White Rabbit’s milk-flavoured sweets were halted after they were found to contain melamine — an industrial chemical that was added to Chinese milk to make its protein content seem higher.

Tainted milk has killed at least four children and sickened 53,000 in China in a widening scandal that has put a spotlight on the country’s lax food safety standards and lack of corporate accountability.

But White Rabbit’s manufacturer, Guan Sheng Yuan, has kept mum about the scandal, even as the list of multinationals recalling products grows.

The silence stands in sharp contrast to last year when — amid allegations that its famous confectionery contained formaldehyde — the company’s general manager called a press conference to pop sweets into his mouth to show they were safe.

When contacted by AFP for this article, no company officials would agree to be quoted by name.

"We really don’t want to see so many reputable brands be dragged down or even destroyed," a high-level Guan Sheng Yuan employee told AFP. "We don’t want the media to give us too much attention."

The cream sweets were first produced in Shanghai in 1943 and throughout its various incarnations its edible rice paper wrapper has fascinated school children in China and around the world, becoming one of China’s most recognizable brands.

They were presented as a state gift to US president Richard Nixon in 1972.

Already Sanlu, previously one of China’s most-trusted milk brands, is said to be bankrupt and, according to state media, is soon to be merged with a major dairy company to escape the scandal.

The milk crisis could be crippling for White Rabbit, analysts said.

"The damage to their reputation could be extreme. Consumption will definitely drop, consumers probably won’t dare buy their products for half a year or even a year," said Chen Lanfang, an analyst with the Beijing-based Orient Agribusiness Consultant Company.

But Chen thinks that consumers will ultimately see White Rabbit, whose sweets consist of 45 percent milk powder, as a victim of the scandal.

Unilever has recalled milk powder after finding melamine in its Lipton tea products, Cadbury ordered back all mainland-made chocolate products and Heinz recalled hundreds of cases of baby food.

But unlike other companies, White Rabbit’s problems do not stem from rogue suppliers. Guang Shen Yuan gets its milk from its parent company, one of the tarnished milk producers, Shanghai Guangming (Bright) Dairy and Food Co.

Singapore health authorities first raised the alarm over White Rabbit late last month, warning that the sweets contained the highest melamine levels out of a range of products tested.

Stores in the US, Britain, Canada and New Zealand soon pulled the product off their shelves, and Guanming Bright Dairy said it was halting exports to 50 overseas markets and suspending Chinese sales.

"We ate White Rabbit candy for many years," an elderly Shanghai woman, who gave her surname as Li, said as she waited for her grandchild to finish school outside a mostly empty White Rabbit-branded shop.

"It’s an old Shanghai brand. We like eating it because the milk flavour was very strong," she said. "But we will quit eating them now and are unlikely to eat them in the future."

But Zhang Wei, a young mother who was waiting for her son to finish school, said consumers might be willing to give White Rabbit another chance — eventually.

"The feeling and emotion are still there, we cannot act as if it never existed," she said.


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