Chinese schoolchildren told to pour away free milk as a precaution

A video showing children from an impoverished area of central China pouring away their free school milk because teachers feared they might take it home and drink it after it had soured has sparked a debate on how best to care for vulnerable youngsters.

The footage, which appeared last week on Weibo - China's Twitter-like platform - shows pupils at Luohong Centre Primary School in Longhui county, Hunan province, tipping cartons of milk into a drain, The Beijing News reported on Thursday.

While some internet users criticised the school for wasting the milk, which is provided daily and free of charge under a nationwide scheme, a report by news website quoted its headmaster, identified only as Zeng, as saying it was done in the interests of the children's health.

"Many of the pupils are 'left behind' children and there have been cases of them taking the milk home and keeping it for months," he said.

He was referring to the 60 million or so children across rural China who are 'left behind' with elderly relatives when their parents leave home to find work in the city.

Zeng said there had been several cases of pupils getting food poisoning after drinking soured milk, and also of parents returning home to find out-of-date cartons in their cupboards and thinking the school had given them out after the expiry date had passed.

Also, the milk seen being poured away in the video was only what was left over after the children had had their fill, he said.

Zeng said the school was working with officials from the country government on ways to prevent milk being wasted in the future, the newspaper report said.

According to recent report by Xinhua, more than 20 million schoolchildren have benefited from the free milk scheme since it was launched by the central government in 2007 as part of a wider campaign to improve nutrition.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.