China vows to clean up dairy industry, more children ill

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BEIJING (AFP) China on Monday vowed to clean up its scandal-plagued dairy industry, admitting a grave lack of supervision as authorities said more children had been sickened by tainted milk products.

Prime Minister Wen Jiabao presided over a meeting of the cabinet, which called for immediate efforts to clean up the nation's "chaotic" dairy industry as more than 5,000 food safety inspectors were deployed, state press said.

Authorities in Beijing are struggling to contain the fallout from the scandal that erupted when Chinese milk powder was found to be contaminated with the toxic chemical melamine. Four children have died from drinking the milk.

"The direct cause of this incident is illegal production, greed and ignoring of people's lives," the cabinet said in a statement after the meeting, according to the official Xinhua news agency.

"Order in China's dairy production and distribution has been chaotic and supervision has been gravely absent."

The cabinet said every effort should be made to "restore the reputation of the nation's food industry, enhance consumer confidence and ensure public health."

China's food safety watchdog has dispatched inspectors across the country to make sure dairy products complied with food safety standards, the People's Daily reported.

So far, the tainted milk has sickened more than 53,000 children and exposed the nation's lax food safety standards -- leading to import curbs on some Chinese products in countries around the world.

Melamine, when added to watered-down milk, makes it appear to be richer in protein than it is.

In the capital Beijing, 382 new illnesses linked to melamine-tainted milk were diagnosed in the past week alone, the state-run Beijing News reported, indicating the problem is far from being solved.

A health ministry spokesman suggested the number of children affected with kidney stones, caused by ingesting melamine, could go up.

"We have the latest number of cases around the nation," he told AFP, "but for the time being, we are not releasing it to the public and the press." He refused to give a reason.

The dairy inspectors will check how raw materials and food additives are used, supervise sample testing and do quality control, the People's Daily said.

State media meanwhile urged authorities to dole out harsher penalties for those implicated in the milk scandal and in any other future food safety concern.

"From this and many other previous scandals, we see a need for the authorities to be harsher toward violators," the China Daily said in an editorial.

The newspaper said the government should come up with stern measures to teach businesses the "significance of being honest."

So far, at least 27 people have been arrested over the scandal, according to previous Xinhua reports.

Six suspects were detained over the weekend in northern China's Inner Mongolia, a key milk production base, it added.

The Beijing News called for the public to play a part in supervising food safety.

"It is only with the eagerness of public supervision that one can make up for the potential oversight of government monitoring and the unreliability of companies' self-discipline," the paper said in an editorial.

The milk scandal continued to make waves around the world, with a number of countries banning or restricting milk products from China, and companies still discovering high levels of melamine in their products.

Iran became the latest country to ban imports of Chinese dairy products, two days after Guyana pulled its Chinese-made dairy items off the market.

The European Union recently banned all imports of Chinese milk-related products for children such as biscuits and chocolate on top of a long-standing embargo on Chinese dairy products like milk and yoghurt.

In Hong Kong, two Chinese-made chocolate products sold by the British sweet maker Cadbury were found to contain dangerous amounts of melamine.

South Korea, for its part, declared a large amount of Chinese-made kimchi, or spicy fermented cabbage, to be inedible due to banned or harmful additives, further adding to concerns over Chinese food.




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