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6,000 ill in China over tainted milk

BEIJING, September 17 – China said Wednesday that more than 6,000 babies had fallen ill and three died from drinking contaminated milk powder as it promised a sweeping check of every dairy producer across the country.

In a developing scandal that has reignited global fears over the safety of its products, China’s quality watchdog chief said two of 22 companies found to have the chemical melamine in their milk powder were exporting it abroad.

Melamine, an industrial chemical normally used to make plastics and glues, appears to have been added to make the products look as rich in protein.

"We will finish the melamine-focused testing on dairy products at all dairy producers as soon as possible and release the results in a timely manner," Li Changjiang, head of the quality watchdog, told a briefing in Beijing.

A total of 6,244 babies have fallen ill after consuming the product, Health Minister Chen Zhu told the same briefing — five times the figure of previous estimates.

While many had now recovered, 1,327 remained in hospital, of whom 158 were suffering from acute kidney failure, Chen told reporters, in the government’s first comprehensive account of the crisis.

Three babies had died, Chen said, updating the previous toll by one. They were from northwest China’s Gansu province and Zhejiang province in the east, suggesting a problem spanning the entire nation if 1.3 billion people.

Most families struck by the tragedy, which has been brewing for months but only emerged on the public agenda last week, are farmers, but it also has the potential to spread overseas.

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The two companies which exported the powder sent it to Bangladesh, Burundi, Gabon, Myanmar and Yemen.

Li, head of the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, confirmed melamine was also found in a yogurt ice-bar made by Yili, one of China’s biggest dairy producers, which was sold in the southern Chinese territory of Hong Kong.

Hong Kong supermarket chain Wellcome has recalled the Yili Natural Choice Yogurt Ice-bar and Li said authorities would investigate how melamine got into that product.

Sanlu Group, the company initially fingered as the alleged chief culprit, has fired its chairwoman and its general manager, state media said earlier.

Four local officials, linked with agriculture and quality control, were also sacked on Tuesday, Xinhua news agency said.

China’s Mengniu Dairy, another of the 22 firms involved, suspended trading of its shares on the Hong Kong stock exchange Wednesday, but did not spell out a reason for the move.

The scandal is the latest to rock China’s food industry, which has already been tarnished in recent years by a series of health scares over dangerous products, some of which have been exported.

Melamine was also found in Chinese pet food exported to the United States last year that killed dogs and cats.

Chinese fish contaminated with banned drugs, cough syrup made with poisonous chemicals and dumplings laced with pesticide have also been found on sale in other countries.

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Officials at Wednesday’s briefing did not give any firm guarantees that the milk issue would not grow larger as more examinations were carried out.

"We’re carrying out comprehensive tests to find out if dairy products made after September 14 contained melamine," said Li, adding the results would be announced later.

"As to whether dairy products from before that date contained melamine, I think it’s better to answer with facts and figures."

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