China blames rat poison after dozens die in village café

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The Independent Online

Chinese authorities have opened a criminal investigation into a mass case of food poisoning that has killed dozens of people, amid reports that the food might have deliberately been tainted with rat poison.

Chinese authorities have opened a criminal investigation into a mass case of food poisoning that has killed dozens of people, amid reports that the food might have deliberately been tainted with rat poison.

Initial reports of how many people died after eating breakfast at a snack shop in Tangshang, a village near Nanjing in eastern China on Saturday were suppressed.

The state media conceded yesterday that more than 200 people were ill, dozens of children and workers might be dead and a criminal investigation was under way. That, at least, was the version run by The China Daily, a state-run English-language newspaper.

The paper took the unusual step of quoting unnamed "local sources" who suspected more people were ill or dead than officials were letting on. "It is really unbearable to see the young children dying right before my eyes and their parents crying desperately," the newspaper quoted an unidentified doctor as saying.

Xinhua, the official news agency, originally reported that 41children and construction workers had died after eating fried dough sticks, sesame cakes and glutinous rice – but that number was pulled from its website, and replaced with an item yesterday that said "a number of them have died".

The case has provoked an outcry over the government's grip on media coverage. Anxious local residents tried to cobble together information from a few disparate sources. Local media reported the Xinhua line faithfully. But The China Daily reported that rat poison – possibly deliberately added to the food – was the cause, and said police were questioning the manager of the company that supplies food to the shop.

The road outside the factory was closed yesterday but investigators could be seen examining the ground inside.

A report in the Hong Kong newspaper Ta Kung Pao, which is close to the Communist Party, described in detail how students went into shock after taking only a couple of bites of food, spitting mucus and blood and falling to the ground unconscious.

Peng Yongqing, who owns a store next to the shop, said he saw one elderly man collapse after eating his breakfast. "It happened right there in front of my store," he told Reuters. "One minute he was sitting there eating and the next he stood up and keeled over."

The victims were mostly migrant workers and students from four schools who regularly ate breakfast at the branch of Heshenyuan Soybean Milk Shop, which is one of the schools' official caterers. The shop has been shut and the owner is being questioned.

State television on Sunday showed children lying two or three to a bed in a hospital and others being treated in hallways, but gave no clue as to how many were affected.

Pictures on various Chinese websites showed victims writhing in pain and being carried from the streets. A journalist at China Central Television, who would not be named, told The Independent: "The authorities were being very tight-lipped about a death toll. It was impossible to find out what exactly was happening." An anonymous official at Jiangsu Province Epidemic Prevention Station told Associated Press: "Examination of the samples sent from hospitals showed it's rat poison."

In the absence of a coherent official explanation, rumours abounded on whether the poisoning was deliberate. In July, a noodle shop owner in southern China was charged with poisoning customers at a rival business by putting rat poison in its soup.

Although incidents of mass poisoning are not uncommon in China, most are through negligence. Cheap industrial salt is sometimes used in fast food instead of cooking salt, and that has caused illness in the past.

There have also been cases of cooks mistaking rat poison for salt by accident. Most recently, in Hunan, 92 primary school children were stricken by poison in their lunch.

Beijing has clamped down on the media to create a sense of "social stability" ahead of the five-yearly Communist Party congress, which starts on 8 November. But Chinese media workers said the information vacuum, and the censors' inability to prevent leaks, indicated the scale of this incident. "They could have buried it but they didn't," one said. "That means it's a much bigger case than they're expecting."