10/01/2008, 00.00
CHINA
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Growing list of companies implicated in Chinese milk scandal

Major brands are running for cover, setting up inspections and ensuring the use of non-Chinese milk. But in Myanmar, no one is warning mothers, who greatly appreciate the affordable product.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) - The milk scandal is expanding, with a growing number of "made in China" products from foreign brands also containing melamine. But Burmese children are still drinking it.

Unilever Hong Kong, owned by Lipton, yesterday admitted that melamine has been found in packets of Lipton tea with milk sold in Hong Kong and Macau, "at the level between less than one part per million to 16 ppm". In cream cookies and coffee from Glico Pocky Men, melamine has been found at 43 ppm, and in coconut cakes produced in Zhongshan, at about 19 ppm. Everyone is stressing that these levels are not harmful for human beings. Health officials in Hong Kong have established that melamine is harmful if it exceeds 2.5 ppm for adults, and 1 ppm. A spokesman for Glico as said that, in these quantities, an adult weighing 60 kilograms would have to eat at least 17 packages of cookies a day to reach the limit. The quantity of melamine found in 180-gram Cadbury Chocolate Eclairs is also modest, about 1.9 ppm.

What is alarming is the scope of the contamination: yesterday, the South Korean food and drug administration found the substance in cheese flavored Ritz crackers from Nabisco Food Suzhou, and in rice crackers from Danyang Day Bright Foods (23.3 and 1.77 ppm, respectively), both produced in China, although Danyang belongs to a Thai company.

It is alarming that the major Chinese companies involved, like Sanlu and Yashili, even after being "discovered", continued to insist that their exported products were safe: yesterday, in Yashili milk exported to Bangladesh, "tests showed there are 7.22mg of melamine per kilogram," says Azmal Hossain, head of the country's standards unit. "This level has the potential to cause kidney failure in young children." It is alarming how slowly the major brands are responding to the problem. Only yesterday, the German company Heinz, a leader in the condiment sector, decided not to use Chinese milk in its Chinese plants anymore, and said that "we are testing all dairy ingredients for melamine prior to use in our factories". Only yesterday, Kraft Foods Hong Kong admitted that the substance has been found in Ritz crackers produced in China, according to a report in the South China Morning Post.

Melamine is cheap and high in nitrogen. When added to milk, it makes it seem high in protein, even if it has a low nutritional value, and may even be adulterated with water. It is toxic to human beings, and in China more than 53,000 infants have kidney problems after consuming the milk. About 13,000 have been hospitalized, and at least four have died. 8,256 tons of adulterated fresh and powdered milk have been confiscated.

The adulteration is so serious that companies and authorities are presenting "public apologies": yesterday it was the turn of Wang Jianguo, spokesman for the municipal government of Shijiazhuang (the capital of Hebei, and the city where Sanlu is based), the authorities of which waited for more than a month before exposing the contamination, admitting on television "the sure responsibilities of the local government".

These apologies are not enough for Taiwanese prime minister Liu Chao-shiuan. Taiwan uses large quantities of Chinese dairy products, and Liu has called for "official government apologies" and the payment of damages caused to companies, estimated to be at least 7 billion Taiwanese dollars (about 154.4 million euros).

For today, a national holiday, the government is providing free kidney exams for children: anxious parents have swamped the best hospitals.

The ones who are paying no attention to the scandal are the military junta leaders in Myanmar. Although the government has prohibited the importing of Chinese dairy products, the state media are not talking about the scandal, and many families are still using Chinese powdered milk: half a kilogram costs 800 kyat, about 45 euro cents, while powdered milk from Thailand costs at least four times as much.

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