BEIJING, September 18 – China on Thursday reported a fourth death in a mounting scandal over tainted baby milk as it ratcheted up its response to the crisis with tighter inspections and the sacking of a city mayor.,
The latest death came in the remote north-western region of Xinjiang, where 86 people fell ill after consuming the milk product that contained the industrial chemical melamine, a notice on the local government’s website said.
It gave few details on the latest fatality, such as whether it was a baby.
The Xinjiang fatality adds to three deaths confirmed on Wednesday by Health Minister Chen Zhu, who also said more than 6,000 babies nationwide had fallen ill.
The three deaths were caused by kidney failure after drinking the milk powder containing melamine, and the scandal has caused panicked parents around the country to besiege hospitals seeking medical check-ups for their children.
Melamine, a chemical normally used in plastics, was illegally mixed into milk products and made its way into the baby formula of 22 Chinese dairy firms, authorities said this week, months after babies first started falling ill.
The chemical was apparently introduced to give watered-down milk the appearance of having high protein levels.
The report of the latest death came as China announced stringent new measures aimed at containing the widening scandal.
The government said it would close loopholes that had allowed many companies to avoid scrutiny on safety, and step up testing of livestock feed to root out the use of melamine throughout the agricultural sector.
The new measures came a day after the country’s top leadership slammed supervision systems in an admission of official failures.
"(The scandal) has shown us that the dairy market is chaotic, flaws exist in supervision mechanisms, and supervision work is weak," state television said Wednesday night in summarising the conclusions of a Cabinet meeting.
The government had earlier on Wednesday ordered nationwide checks for melamine on all dairy products.
As part of the stepped up supervision announced in Thursday, the country’s top product-quality agency cancelled an eight-year-old system under which food producers could gain exemption from safety inspections if they had a good quality record.
State-run Xinhua news agency said one of the companies utilising that system was Sanlu Group, the dairy company first revealed to be putting out tainted products and whose milk powder has apparently shown the most contamination.
The quality agency, the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, also has given "urgent" instructions to its departments to step up tests for melamine in livestock feed and feed additives.
The order appeared to indicate official concern over possible melamine contamination in the wider agricultural sector.
The administration said the order was aimed at "ensuring the safety of feed and feed additives," according to Xinhua.
Even before the milk powder scandal, foreign media investigations had found that melamine was widely used in China to give livestock feed the appearance of higher protein content.
The number of people punished over the scandal continued to grow on Thursday with the mayor of Shijiazhuang, a northern city where the Sanlu Group is based, sacked, according to Xinhua.
Police had already detained the sacked chairwoman of Sanlu, while six other people have been arrested, five of whom were involved in adding melamine to milk.
China has endured a litany of scandals in recent years over its poor food quality and problems with a wide range of other products that have been exported, including drugs and toys.
In another hit to the "Made in China" brand, French retailer Conforama said in Paris on Wednesday that it had withdrawn a range of Chinese-made armchairs and sofas from sale after hundreds of buyers developed painful eczema rashes.