China pulls some eggs amid new food safety scare

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BEIJING (AP) A brand of eggs is being pulled off some shelves in China because of fears they are tainted with the same industrial chemical found in milk that sickened tens of thousands of babies.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world's largest retailer, said Tuesday it has removed the "Select" brand of eggs made by China's Dalian Hanwei Enterprise Group from all of its stores in China, after Hong Kong food safety regulators found excessive levels of melamine in imported eggs of the same brand.

Wal-Mart and Chinese officials said they did not have a figure for how many eggs have been recalled. So far, no illnesses have been reported.

Hanwei, the manufacturer, apologized to consumers in Hong Kong while a mainland official said the company has started a nationwide recall of eggs suspected to be contaminated with the chemical, which is used in plastics and fertilizers.

The problems expose the inability of Chinese authorities to keep the food production process clean of the chemical at the center of a milk scandal that has prompted official vows to raise food safety standards. The recalls also underscore fears that melamine contamination of the country's food chain may be more widespread than earlier thought.

Hong Kong testers found melamine in the eggs at nearly two times the territory's legal limit for the chemical in foodstuffs. The egg contamination has prompted Hong Kong officials to expand food testing to Chinese meat imports.

It remains unclear what eating melamine-tainted eggs will do to humans, but in the recent scandal, milk formula heavily contaminated with the chemical caused kidney stones in babies. It was blamed for sickening 54,000 children and linked to the deaths of four infants. More than 3,600 children remain sick, health officials say.

Mu Mingming, a spokeswoman for Wal-Mart, said the company was working closely with suppliers and the government.

"We just want to make sure the products on our shelves are safe," Mu said by telephone from Shenzhen.

Chinese media reports said major Chinese retailers in the southern province of Guangdong, which borders Hong Kong, have also stopped selling the suspect eggs.

Hong Kong television station TVB reported Tuesday that Hanwei's director Han Wei said the firm bore responsibility for the contamination.

"There are no consumers asking about protein levels in our eggs and so there is no need for us to add melamine to our eggs in the process of selling our products," Han said in the report. "We truly regret this. We too have an undeniable responsibility."

Calls to Hanwei, based in the northeastern port city Dalian, went unanswered Tuesday, but city government official said Hanwei had started a nationwide recall of eggs deemed "problematic." The official, who refused to give her name as is common among Chinese officials, said she had no further details.

Han did not explain how the chemical made its way into eggs sold by the company. But the Chinese Agriculture Ministry's animal husbandry department head, Wang Zhicai, was quoted by the Beijing News newspaper Tuesday as saying it was highly likely that melamine had been added to the feed given to the chickens that laid the eggs.

Melamine is not an animal feed additive and is banned from being mixed in, Wang said.

The report said the ministry has been inspecting feed for the chemical since last year, after a Chinese-made pet food ingredient containing melamine was linked to the deaths of dozens of dogs and cats in the United States and touched off a massive pet food recall.

It was not immediately clear why the chemical would be added to animal feed. But a food industry expert pointed to the same motivation cited in the current milk scandal and last year's pet food recall: Melamine boosts nitrogen levels, making products seem higher in protein when tested.

Jason Yan, the U.S. Grains Council's technical director in Beijing, said the chemical could have been added by suppliers of animal feed ingredients trying to pass off a normal grade protein ingredient as a higher grade product.

Yan said that in soybean meal, for example, the price gap between the regular and premium grades is about several hundred yuan (tens of dollars) per ton (metric ton), Yan said.

"Some traders may be willing to take the risk by adding melamine to make a lot more profit," he said.

Associated Press researcher Xi Yue contributed to this report in Beijing



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