PANZHUANGZI, CHINA — Before dawn each day, Gao Penghong and his wife join scores of other farmers in this dairy-rich village who must walk their cows to a local milk collection station because of new safety requirements.
A byproduct of China's deadly tainted-milk scandal, the mile-long walks to the station come as officials push for more critical supervision of dairy farmers. Only weeks ago, farmers were free to milk their cows at home and deliver the product in heavy metal containers.
But now some observers see dairy farmers, who exist at the lowest level of the milk production cycle, as having the most financial incentive to spike milk to boost protein readings. Other food safety experts say it's unlikely that small-time farmers are behind the scandal, because they generally lack the knowledge to cause such widespread contamination.
Milk contaminated with the industrial chemical melamine is blamed for killing four babies and sickening 54,000 others with kidney stones and other illnesses. The food safety crisis, China's worst in decades, has also led to numerous arrests, an international recall of Chinese products containing milk and at least one lawsuit against a milk company.
Experts point to a growing black market for powdered melamine among food makers in China and elsewhere. There are numerous parties involved in moving milk from the cow to the consumer, including collection stations, middle men and manufacturers. The adulteration, analysts say, could come anywhere in the process.
Melamine, which is used in plastics and laminates, has also been used by the unscrupulous to bulk up livestock feed, pet food and now baby formula.
In tests to determine a food's nutritional value, melamine shows up as protein, so it has been added to make products appear more nutritious. Though nontoxic, it can combine with other chemicals in the body to form crystals in the kidneys that can cause renal failure, experts say.
Last year, melamine-laced food products shipped from China to pet food companies in the U.S. and elsewhere were blamed in the deaths of thousands of dogs and cats.
Jorgen Schlundt, the World Health Organization's director of food safety, thinks powdered melamine might be produced in underground factories in China, beyond the realm of small-time farmers.
"It's very unlikely that single farmers are responsible -- and significantly more likely it's the work of the collection centers," he said. "You have to treat the melamine before you use it. It's more complex than just putting a little powder into milk."
Moving to stem the scandal, Chinese officials now require producers to track raw-milk purchases back to the farmers. Monitors have also been sent to larger farms.
Officials announced standards for allowable levels of melamine in milk and other food and have encouraged whistle-blowers to report violations.
The milk contamination led China's food safety chief to resign, and other officials have lost their jobs.
In tiny Panzhuangzi, a dozen villagers gathered recently to rue the new collection rules. Plummeting demand has forced some farmers to feed the unwanted milk to other animals and sell their dairy cows. All because of melamine -- san ju qing an -- a chemical they'd never heard of until the scandal.
The new rules have created an unlikely rush hour in this enclave of 400 families, as farmers hit the road twice a day with their prized cows. Pandemonium rules, the skittish, 1,200-pound animals bolting from passing cars and motorcycles and often dragging their helpless wards into the adjacent cornfields.
For days, Gao, 58, walked with a limp after being kicked by a terrified cow. But what hurts more, he says, is being considered a criminal by consumers in his own country.
That's not to say China's dairy farmers are innocent of profit-making tactics. Regulators here have long suspected that some inject their cows with stimulants and antibiotics to increase milk production. Others dilute the milk with water.
For years, Panzhuangzi's fortunes have ridden on the backs of dairy cattle. A decade ago, dozens of villagers in the fertile area about 75 miles east of Beijing began using dairy cows to supplement their corn and wheat farms.
In 2000, Gao and his wife, Cai Jingrong, plunked down their entire savings of 8,000 yuan, or about $1,100, to buy an animal.
To Gao, the move made sense. Cows were gentle creatures who performed a daily miracle: turning grain and cornstalks into life-sustaining milk. Many urban Chinese were also developing a taste for milk drinks, yogurt, ice cream, cheese.
Gao bred his lone cow, working up to a stable of four. But then the market went sour. The quality of feed nose-dived as prices rose because there was less corn, the major feed source. The price he received for his milk also plummeted, from 40 cents a kilogram (about 2 pounds) to 20 cents.
The milk scandal was the latest blow. Gao has already sold one cow at a loss and fears the others will soon have to go as well. His trips to the milking station mean he also had to quit a part-time construction job his family depended on.
His son, Gao Chunkai, 38, feels helpless as he watches his parents' livelihood swallowed up by a scandal they didn't create. The younger Gao, who works in a local shoe business, at first took time off to help his parents deliver the cows to the station each day. But he and his brother eventually had to return to their jobs.
"My parents worked their whole lives and now everything is crumbling around them," he said. "It's easy to blame the farmers."