Wednesday, September 17, 2008

China Warns Of 'Possibly Rising' Toll From Tainted Baby Formula

Eight-month-old Cheng Aobing, who suffers from kidney stones, receives medical treatment at a hospital in Hefei, in China's Anhui Province, on Sunday. (Reuters)

BEIJING: The Chinese Health Ministry warned Tuesday of a possible rise in the number of babies affected by the contaminated milk powder that has already been linked to the deaths of two infants and to health problems in more than 1,200 others.

The official Xinhua news agency quoted the ministry as saying Tuesday that medical agencies were prepared for a "possibly rising" number of cases and that the country was setting up a "multilevel treatment system" for infants who drank the contaminated milk product.

The company at the heart of the widening scandal, Sanlu Group, apologized Monday for the tainted milk powder, which the Health Ministry said had been spiked with the industrial chemical melamine.

Sanlu said that the suppliers of the raw milk used in the product were responsible for adding the chemical, which is typically used in plastics, to make the milk appear to have a higher protein content.

Zhang Zhenling, vice president of Sanlu, apologized Monday but did not explain why the company took so long to inform the public about the contamination. The company allegedly received complaints about the product as early as March and confirmed the presence of melamine in the milk product during tests conducted in early August. Sanlu went public with the information after Fonterra, a New Zealand company that owns a 43 percent share in the company, told the New Zealand government about the contaminated product. New Zealand officials then informed the Chinese government.

"The serious safety accident of the Sanlu formula milk powder for infants has caused severe harm to many sickened babies and their families," Zhang said. "We feel really sad about this."

Meanwhile, the police announced the arrests of two milk suppliers from northern Hebei Province late Monday. The two suppliers were identified only by their surnames and age: Ma, 40, and Zhao, 43. That brings to four the number of people arrested in connection with the scandal, Shi Guizhong, a spokesman for the Hebei Provincial Security Department, was quoted by Xinhua as saying.

Police officials said earlier that they had arrested two brothers with the last name of Geng who ran a milk collection center in Hebei Province and who are accused of adding melamine to the milk, Xinhua reported. The brothers sold about three tons of contaminated milk a day, the report said.

On Monday, the Health Ministry announced that a second infant, from Gansu Province, had died of kidney failure after drinking the milk. Details of the two deaths show that the problem appeared to have gone undetected for months. The first victim, a five-month-old boy from the western city of Lanzhou, died May 1, ministry officials said. The second, an eight-month-old girl also from Lanzhou, died July 22.

Ma Xiaowei, a deputy health minister, told reporters that 1,253 infants had become sick - mainly after developing kidney stones - more than twice the number acknowledged the previous week. Of those, 913 infants were only slightly affected, while 340 remained hospitalized and 53 cases were considered especially severe, he said.

It is the second crisis to raise questions about government accountability in China since the Beijing Olympics ended Aug. 24.

At least 254 people died last week when the retaining wall of a waste dump at an illegal mine in northern China collapsed. The Shanxi provincial governor resigned over the matter and his deputy was fired.

The milk formula scandal is embarrassing for China's product safety system, which was recently overhauled in an attempt to restore consumer confidence and preserve export markets after a string of recalls and warnings abroad over tainted toothpaste, faulty tires and other goods.

It is also the second major case in recent years involving baby formula. In 2004, more than 200 Chinese infants suffered from malnutrition and at least 12 died after being fed phony formula that contained no nutrients.

Shoddy and fake goods are common in China, and infants, hospital patients and others have died or become ill after consuming tainted or fake food, medicine, liquor or other products.

Chinese investigators have said they think that melamine may have been added to the formula fool quality tests. None of the contaminated milk powder was exported to Europe or the United States.

Source: Iht.Com

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