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Crying over spilled milk in Vietnam

China's melamine scandal moves in mysterious ways.

A Vietnamese farmer tends to a cow in a rice field in Ha Tay province, 14 miles south of Hanoi, Vietnam in 2006. (Nguyen Huy Kham/Reuters)

PHU DONG, Vietnam — Hoan Trong Thuyen, 69, stood over the 2-ton stainless steel milk storage vat with a grim expression.

“It’s been here two days already,” Thuyen said. “If the dairy company doesn’t come to buy it tomorrow, we’ll have to pour it out.”

Thuyen is the chairman of the Phu Dong Dairy Collective. Farmers in this small town 10 miles southeast of Hanoi use the collective to sell their milk to large dairy companies. Since farmers here began raising dairy cows in the 1990s, milk has lifted dozens of families out of poverty and made Thuyen a millionaire.

But for the past two months, farmers in Phu Dong and some other dairy regions across northern Vietnam have been pouring their cows’ milk away — in streams and rivers, on fields and roads. Demand for milk fell sharply in Vietnam last fall, after reports that vast quantities of fresh and powdered milk from China were tainted with the industrial chemical melamine.

In September, tiny amounts of melamine turned up in milk marketed by Hanoimilk, a large state-owned dairy company that mixed fresh local milk with imported Chinese milk in some of its brands. When customers found out, Hanoimilk’s sales plummeted, and it cut its local milk purchases by half or more.

Other milk companies, whose milk never tested positive, have seen demand recover, and farmers who supplied milk to those companies are doing well. But Hanoimilk’s suppliers were stuck with their surpluses.