China Says Complaints About Milk Began in 2007

(New York Times – China)

By DAVID BARBOZA

 

One of China’s biggest dairy producers received consumer complaints about its baby milk formula as early as December 2007 — much earlier than previously thought and 10 months before the producer ordered a nationwide recall because of concerns that the formula had been adulterated with a toxic industrial chemical, state media said Tuesday.

 

The disclosure, in a government report publicized by the official Xinhua News Agency, is the latest indication that the producer, Sanlu Group, had repeatedly tried to hide information about its contaminated dairy supplies from the public.

 

Powdered milk formula in China tainted by melamine, a chemical compound, has already sickened more than 53,000 infants and killed three children nationwide, according to the Health Ministry, leading to recalls of Chinese-made dairy products in China and other parts of Asia, devastating this nation’s huge dairy industry and casting a renewed pall over the quality of Chinese food production. Officials at the Sanlu Group, which is based in northern China’s Hebei Province, could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.

 

The government report did not include details about the nature or number of consumer complaints but put the timing of when they began at least six months earlier than first reported.

 

Earlier this month, government investigators said that Sanlu officials had delayed acting on consumer complaints and warnings in June, and that local government officials in Hebei knew of the problems in early August, just before the Olympic Games opened in Beijing.

 

Sanlu announced a nationwide recall in early September.

 

The Fonterra Group of New Zealand, which is one of the world’s biggest dairy exporters and has a 43 percent stake in Sanlu, says it pressed its Chinese partner to announce a recall in August, but company and local government officials refused.

 

Food safety experts say the delays may have allowed the tainted powdered milk supplies to spread more widely, making tens of thousands of children ill.

 

The delays have led to widespread speculation in China that Sanlu and some government officials were trying to cover up the problem during the Olympics because Beijing had pressed Chinese journalists and companies not to release negative news.

 

In the two weeks since reports spread about the contamination and sickness, though, the milk recall has mushroomed, with worried parents rushing to hospitals, supermarket chains pulling dairy products off shelves and dairy farmers dumping milk because no one is willing to drink it.

 

China’s dairy industry has been booming for more than a decade, with the aid of a government initiative to get Chinese to drink more milk.

 

But worries about baby formula tainted with melamine, which is used to produce plastics and fertilizer, led to government checks that uncovered evidence that products made by 21 other dairy producers, including some of China’s best known dairy brands, have also been tainted by melamine.

 

On Monday, the government announced that the head of the nation’s quality watchdog had been forced to resign for failing to properly supervise the dairy market. Several government officials from Hebei Province have also been forced to step down, along with the chairwoman of the Sanlu Group.

 

The government announced Tuesday that more than 7,000 tons of dairy products had been removed from store shelves. Also on Tuesday, the Ministry of Agriculture said the nation’s dairy collection system was “out of control,” The Associated Press reported, making it possible for unscrupulous businesses to intentionally spike dairy supplies with melamine, which can be used to illegally and artificially inflate the protein count in milk and other foods. 9-24-08

 

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