BEIJING, September 26 – China’s toxic milk scandal escalated Friday as one of the country’s best-known candy brands was pulled off the shelves and more nations around the world imposed curbs on Chinese imports.
The makers of White Rabbit candy — a hugely popular candy presented to US president Richard Nixon on his landmark 1972 trip — announced it was halting domestic sales after its products were found to contain melamine.
It came as the European Union joined a growing list of nations and regions to ban or restrict imports of milk products from China, leaving Asia’s biggest exporter facing one of the biggest challenges ever to its reputation.
White Rabbit producer Guanshengyuan had previously recalled exports after Singapore authorities said they had tested positive for melamine, a chemical which is normally used to make plastic, a spokesman said.
"We’ve recalled white rabbit candy for export overseas, and we are temporarily halting domestic sales," said the spokesman, who declined to be named.
The decision is the latest twist in an embarrassing scandal that has so far sickened 53,000 Chinese children, killing four, after they drank contaminated milk.
Singapore’s Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority said last Sunday that White Rabbit samples imported from China were contaminated with melamine, which can make milk appear richer in protein.
The Shanghai Entry-Exit Inspection and Quarantine Bureau is conducting its own tests on the candies, but the results have yet to be released, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
On Thursday, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency also recommended a recall of White Rabbit candies, and Britain’s biggest retailer Tesco has said it has also withdrawn the brand.
India and Libya on Thursday banned imports of Chinese milk products, while Gabon said it was sending back tens of thousands of boxes of contaminated milk powder.
Togo and Benin also halted imports along with Suriname, where Chinese-made sweets were stripped from supermarket shelves.
More than a dozen countries had previously ordered such bans or taken other steps to curb consumption.
So far, the only five cases outside mainland China of children falling ill from drinking tainted milk have been reported in Hong Kong, where authorities said fresh milk would be checked for melamine at the border.
In Beijing however, the World Health Organisation suggested the scandal may have reached its peak.
"There could be more deaths but we don’t believe it will be a high number," Hans Troedsson, China country director of the World Health Organisation, told reporters.
"Clearly, if there’s not another unknown development, we will continue to see some recalls, and I think we will still see some more cases," he said.
"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."
The scandal has not just affected children.
Two orangutans and a lion cub at a zoo near eastern China’s Hangzhou city have been diagnosed with kidney stones after being fed milk powder containing melamine, the Beijing Morning Post reported.
The zoo planned to bring other animals that had been fed with the milk for check-ups in the next few days, it added.