Infants' deaths rekindle anger over food safety

Tainted milk formula sickens more than 1,250

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BEIJING -- A tainted-milk scandal in China has killed two babies and sickened more than 1,250 others, triggering a new wave of public anger over food safety in a country that had pledged to clean up its food industry.

The scandal expanded dramatically yesterday when China announced a tripling in the official toll of infants who had fallen ill from the contaminated milk formula. Of the poisoned babies, 340 are still in hospital, including 53 in critical condition.

The public outrage was heightened by revelations that Chinese local authorities had known of the toxic milk and had refused to order a recall of the tainted formula, even after complaints in early August from a minority shareholder in the company that produced it.

As many as 10,000 infants may have consumed the contaminated milk powder, according to a deputy minister in China's Health Ministry. Some parents had complained about the milk as early as February, and the first victim died in May, yet nothing was done.

The dairy company at the centre of the scandal, Sanlu Group Co., is the biggest producer of powdered milk formula in China, supplying 18 per cent of the Chinese market. Yesterday, the company apologized for the "severe harm" it had caused to "many sickened babies."

Sanlu has recalled at least 8,000 tonnes of the milk formula. It has admitted that about 700 tonnes of the powder was contaminated.

China has launched an investigation and detained 19 people at dairy farms and collecting stations that pick up milk from farmers. Two of the detained suspects had allegedly added an industrial chemical to the three tonnes of milk that they collected from farmers every day.

"It's shocking," a senior Chinese official told the China Daily newspaper. "It's a crime against the people."

Chinese media have reported that some collecting stations were fraudulently adding water to the milk to increase its volume. Then they added melamine - an industrial chemical used in plastics - to the milk to make it seem higher in protein when it was tested by quality inspectors.

Melamine is rich in nitrogen, which is often measured as an indicator of protein levels. But the chemical can have serious health effects on humans. Many infants developed kidney stones and other complications after they drank the tainted milk.

Melamine is the same chemical that was added to pet-food ingredients in China last year, causing thousands of pets to be killed or sickened in North America after they consumed the exported food from China.

Food scandals have proliferated in China in recent years. At least 13 babies were killed by fake milk powder in China in 2004.

China announced a crackdown on its product-safety system last year after a series of international controversies over its food products and other exports. The milk formula scandal is a disastrous setback for China's efforts to restore confidence in its food-safety system.

The dairy producer, Sanlu, is 43 per cent owned by Fonterra, a New Zealand dairy farmers' co-operative. The co-operative said it had pushed for a recall of the milk formula in early August, but nothing was done.

New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark said yesterday she first heard of the problem on Sept. 5. Three days later, she ordered her officials to bypass the local authorities and directly inform the central government in Beijing. "Once we blew the whistle in Beijing, they moved very fast," she said.


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