China's children love their "White Rabbit" sweets, a traditional reward for good behaviour or a school-time treat, but confectioners Guanshengyuan yesterday stopped domestic sales of the creamy candy after it was found to be laced with the toxic chemical melamine, the latest grim discovery in the widening food scandal over Chinese dairy products.
The problem has already spread to Hong Kong and Japan while the EU has restricted Chinese imports and countries across Asia have taken similar steps.
The food scandal has killed four babies and affected more than 60,000 more, with 10,000 additional cases of children who have developed kidney illnesses after drinking toxic milk formula revealed in the provinces of China in recent days. The World Health Organisation (WHO) says there was a "deliberate failure" to report the contamination with melamine, a cheap industrial chemical normally used to make plastic or to tan leather that can be used to cheat milk quality checks – with fatal consequences.
The problem also spread to neighbouring Japan, when Marudai Food Co. said melamine had been found in some of its recalled products made with Chinese milk, including "Cream Panda" buns, which appeal to children.
The scandal is the most serious black mark to date against the "Made in China" brand. Recent years have seen scares over seafood, dumplings and pet food, while toys, toothpaste and pharmaceuticals have been revealed as substandard and dangerous.
In Starbucks' 300 cafés around China, the baristas have switched to using soy milk in lattes and capuccinos, and many customers seemed to be switching to black coffee or skipping their daily caffeine hit altogether.
Two baby orang-utans and a lion cub at a zoo in eastern China have developed kidney stones from being fed tainted milk powder, while two gorillas at the same zoo, the Hangzhou Wildlife World in Zhejiang province, are also sick.
In the supermarkets, the food safety crisis has people asking whether other products out there, such as meat and vegetables, are safe or not, although the Xinhua news agency said shoppers are slowly buying dairy again after crisis management efforts.
Perhaps fearful the scandal could translate into wider social unrest, the Chinese media was chiefly focusing yesterday on the Shenzou-7 space walk, and China's food safety regulators said recent food safety problems had been brought under control.
The Chinese government has fired its chief quality supervisor, stepped up inspection of dairy farms and seized more than 7,000 tons of contaminated products from stores.
However, Hans Troedsson, the WHO's China representative, warned there could be more deaths.
"We might be starting to see the end of it, even if I don't think we are yet at that level, because there is now vigorous testing, not only in China, but in other countries," said Troedsson, speaking in Beijing.
"This incident was aggravated by delays in reporting at a number of sources. These delays were probably a combination of ignorance and deliberate failure to report," he said.
Peter Mandelson, the European Union's trade commissioner, said in the Chinese capital yesterday that the controls in China needed to be reinforced.
"Above all, we expect responsibility from producers and managers in all companies involved in food production," said Mandelson.
The EU has banned the import of Chinese baby food that contains any traces of milk, while other food made in China or with Chinese ingredients such as toffee, biscuits and chocolate, will be tested.
Dairy goods tainted with tainted Chinese exports have been found in Taiwan, Singapore and Japan, and a dozen Asian and African nations have banned Chinese dairy products. Twenty-two of China's top dairy companies, including Sanlu Group and China Mengniu Dairy, were found to have sold contaminated products.
Sanlu, the first company which was shown to have produced tainted milk, received complaints about its baby milk powder from worried parents in December and knew of contamination in June, Xinhua reported.
However, the company didn't notify the city government of Shijiazhuang, where it's based, until August 2 that its products contained melamine.
There is speculation that a decision was made somewhere along the line not to pursue the matter until the Olympics in Beijing were over, as a food safety scandal would have been embarrassing during the Games. The nation's quality and safety watchdog started an investigation on September 10.
Sanlu, which is 43 per cent owned by New Zealand's Fronterra Group, is now facing bankruptcy and its chief executive is in jail. The Chinese company may be bought by Beijing Sanyuan Foods, whose products have not been found to be contaminated.Reuse content