China alarm spreads over toxic baby milk

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The Independent Online

The nerves of China's consumers were badly rattled today after a toxic baby milk scandal, which has seen two infants die and thousands made ill, widened to include milk products from the country's best-known dairy companies.

So far two children have died of kidney failure and 1,200 more have developed kidney stones from drinking the toxic formula, and thousands more Chinese children may yet fall ill, the government warned.

"Hospitals should try their best to meet rising demands for diagnosis and treatment because the number of parents who take their children for medical check-ups could rise drastically in the future," Deputy Health Minister Ma Xiaowei said in a tele-conference with regional health officials.

A government health probe showed 20 per cent of dairy companies had produced batches of milk containing melamine, an industrial chemical added to milk to make it seem like it had a higher protein content.

The scandal is the latest crisis to affect China's product safety record and it has rattled consumer confidence in food products in China. In 2004, at least 13 babies in Anhui province died after drinking fake milk powder that had no nutritional value.

Hong Kong's biggest supermarket chain Wellcome yesterday withdrew a yoghurt ice-cream bar produced by China's biggest dairy product maker, Yili, after it was found to contain melamine.

Wellcome said in a statement it would stop selling all Yili brand ice cream as a precaution, although other Yili products would stay on sale.

Chinese health officials began a probe into all baby milk powders after reports of children in at least seven provinces developing kidney stones after drinking tainted formula produced by the Sanlu Group.

The results of the probe have shocked Chinese consumers. Out of 109 dairy producers checked, 22 had been found to have produced batches of milk contaminated with melamine, including major Olympic Games sponsor Yili, and Mengniu, which became a hugely popular brand following its sponsorship of the "Supergirl" contest, China's most popular talent show.

No tainted product had been supplied overseas, or supplied to the Olympics or Paralympics.

New Zealand's Fronterra Co-op has a 43 per cent stake in Sanlu and the New Zealand government said it had pushed for an investigation after local authorities ignored earlier pleas to have the reports of tainted milk tested.

Sanlu has since admitted that it knew of the contamination in early August, more than a month before the public recall issued last week.

There had been complaints to the company since March that babies' urine was discoloured and that some had been admitted to hospital after drinking the formula.

Sanlu chairwoman Tian Wenhua has been sacked over the scandal. Some commentators have suggested that nothing was done to investigate the claims as the company and local officials did not want any bad publicity during the Olympic Games, when the world's eyes were on China.

Two more men were arrested in China for allegedly adding melamine to milk, bringing to four the number of people arrested in relation to the scandal. The two milk dealers, who supplied Sanlu, were arrested early yesterday, police in Hebei said, and one of them supplied three tons of milk a day. Police had detained another 22 people for questioning.

Melamine can make the protein level in dairy products appear higher than it is. The chemical, used to make plastics, was found in exported pet food last year and blamed for killing thousands of cats and dogs in the United States.