China Arrests 2 in Milk Scandal as Number of Sick Infants Rises

(Wall Street Journal China)



Chinese police arrested two men on suspicion of contaminating milk used to produce baby formula with a toxic chemical, as the number of infants reported sickened by the bad milk powder jumped to 1,253 and authorities disclosed a second baby's death.


Ministry of Health officials said on Monday that two infants had died from kidney problems after ingesting milk powder contaminated with melamine, the same toxic industrial chemical linked to tainted dog food exported to the U.S. The milk powder was sold by Shijiazhuang Sanlu Group Co., one of China's biggest producers, which is 43%-owned by Fonterra Co-operative Group Ltd., of New Zealand.


The crisis raises questions about China's ability to regulate its products even after reforms enacted in the wake of tainted exports of pet food, toothpaste and drugs starting last year.


Government officials have announced a nationwide investigation. On Monday, local police in Sanlu's hometown of Shijiazhuang said they had arrested two brothers who had been selling three tons of contaminated milk a day to Sanlu, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency.


The brothers, surnamed Geng, ran a private operation collecting milk from farmers for resale. They allegedly began putting melamine in their milk late last year, after their milk was rejected by Sanlu "for failing to meet Sanlu's standards," Xinhua cited a police spokesman as saying. Xinhua didn't elaborate, but experts say nitrogen-rich melamine, used to make plastics and fertilizers, is sometimes illegally added to food products to boost their apparent protein levels.


Xinhua cited the police spokesman as saying the brothers could face charges of "producing and selling toxic and hazardous food." The men couldn't be reached for comment. It isn't clear how much of the tainted milk they might have been responsible for.


One of the infant deaths caused by the milk powder occurred in May, the other in July, but officials didn't link their deaths to the milk until after Sanlu notified central-government authorities in September. Sanlu had known of a problem with its products as early as March and was aware of the melamine contamination starting in early August, according to officials. Authorities say that 340 infants are still hospitalized, including 53 who are seriously ill, while another 913 are mildly ill.


In Sanlu's first public comment on the matter, on Monday Zhang Zhenling, the company's vice president, read a letter of apology at a news briefing. "The serious safety accident of the Sanlu formula milk powder for infants has caused severe harm to many sickened babies and their families. We feel really sad about this," Xinhua quoted him as saying.


Fonterra, Sanlu's part-owner, said it pushed for a recall as soon as it learned of the problem Aug. 2, but some have questioned why it didn't disclose the information to the public. On Monday, Chief Executive Andrew Ferrier defended Fonterra's actions, saying that revealing the problem before Chinese officials did would have been "totally irresponsible."


"This is just a huge tragedy, and we just have to focus on getting the product off the shelf and to be very, very concerned about the implications of this," he said.


New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark said she was told of the problem on Sept. 5 and three days later ordered that authorities in Beijing be notified. "As you can imagine, when the New Zealand government blew the whistle in Beijing, a very heavy hand then descended on the local authorities," she told Radio New Zealand. Inc., China's most popular Internet-search site, said it had been contacted twice by a public-relations firm representing Sanlu, on Sept. 9 and 12, asking Baidu to block negative news about Sanlu from its site. Baidu said it had rejected the request. Baidu didn't name the public relations firm, and Sanlu couldn't be reached for further comment. 9-16-08



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