For the third time in recent years, China has attempted to cover up illnesses and deaths related to spoiled food and medicines.

The latest case involves spoiled vaccines. A 2010 case also involved vaccines. A 2008 case involved a massive coverup of spoiled infant dairy products that killed six with another 300,000 falling ill.

Please consider Beijing Scrambles to Contain [Another] Vaccine Scandal.

Chinese authorities are scrambling to control the fallout after revelations that $88m in expired or spoiled vaccines have been distributed across China in a trade that continued unchallenged for years.

Police in Shandong province cracked the ring that purchased and redistributed substandard vaccines 11 months ago but authorities only appealed to distributors to help trace potential victims this week, after Chinese media broke the story.

The ring specialised in buying spoiled or soon-to-expire vaccines from dozens of salespeople at vaccine groups, and then redistributing them to vendors, including government-run disease control centres, in at least 10 provinces or cities.

Qiao Mu, a former journalism professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University, said the case would have been “completely preventable” if Chinese media were allowed to report freely on misconduct. “The authorities have a tendency of covering up media reports and failing to act until the whole thing blows up.”

In a similar case in impoverished Shanxi province in 2010, at least four young children died after receiving vaccines that had been left in sweltering heat. The editor of the China Economic Times was fired after his paper broke that story.

In China’s most notorious food-safety breach, milk adulterated by the chemical compound melamine, the infant formula maker at the centre of the scandal attempted a recall but was ordered by government officials to cover up the problem, for fear of damaging China’s reputation ahead of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. At least six infants died, more than 300,000 fell ill and the reputation of the Chinese dairy industry has yet to recover.

In the US, unlike China, it is very difficult to hide such incidents. While companies may attempt coverups, the press doesn’t. The Chipotle E. coli outbreak is a recent example.

With China one always has to wonder: How many cases go unreported out of fear of reporting?

Mike “Mish” Shedlock