Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) - Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has ordered thorough investigations of all milk-based products, announcing an upcoming reform of the dairy sector, partly in an effort to demonstrate the intention of eliminating adulteration. Approximately 5,000 inspectors divided into 1,400 groups are already at work, while arrests and punishments against those who caused or covered up the scandal are being stepped up.
Beijing is taking tough measures against the company Sanlu, the producer of powdered milk containing melamine: yesterday, Ji Chutang, the mayor and deputy leader of the local communist party in Shijianzhuang, where Sanlu is based, was dismissed for "underestimating" the problem and doing nothing when, in August, the New Zealand company Fonterra (in which Sanlu has a 43% stake) told him about the possible adulteration. Tian Wenhua, the head of Sanlu and the secretary of the local communist party, has also been arrested for producing and selling harmful food products. In recent days, four other communist officials were also dismissed, including deputy mayor Zhang Fawang. There have been various arrests, and the media report that some have confessed that the adulteration of the milk began as early as April of 2005.
But the problem is nationwide, with melamine found in the products of 22 companies. Melamine is used in plastic manufacturing, and also makes foods appear higher in protein than they are. It is feared that it is also used in other foods: inspections of animals have begun, to see if they have been given melamine or other similar substances, as has happened in the past. Regulations allow companies that have passed three inspections in a row to be exempted from further quality controls: many brands of milk containing melamine are from companies exempted in this way.
Official figures say that 6,244 children have suffered kidney problems (with 3 dead, and 1,300 hospitalized in serious condition), but thousands of checkups are still underway in the crowded hospitals. At the Capital Institute of Paediatrics, one of two children's hospitals in Beijing, parents line up at three o'clock in the morning with children just a few months old. The ultrasound examination takes about 20 minutes: a few mothers say that for them, "it took only three minutes", and they are afraid that the doctors were not very thorough, concluding that they will "go to another hospital for another exam".
In the long lines, distressed and powerless mothers continue to criticize the food companies harshly, but also the government, and the inspectors "who did not do their job". Millions of less prosperous parents are wondering how they will feed their children: imported powdered milk costs at least twice as much as the Chinese products. Many of these parents are migrants, and the mothers work and cannot breast-feed their children. In prosperous Shenzhen, a tin of imported powdered milk costs 200 yuan (about 20 euros), a quarter of the minimum monthly salary.
In Chongqing, Feng Xiaoling's family income is 2,700 yuan per month. "My 10 month old son", she tells the South China Morning Post, "usually drinks 10 bags of Sanlu milk powder per month, costing around 360 yuan. Domestic-made infant formula is probably the only option for us, or we'll need to nearly spend half our monthly salary on imported milk". The infant now has kidney stones. The government has promised free medical care for these children, but Feng says that they have had to pay at least 3,000 yuan for medical expenses since the child was hospitalized.
In Henan, Chen Xianzhi's grandson drank powdered milk from Sanlu for one year, and now has hydronephrosis, a swelling of the kidneys. After news of the scandal broke, she began buying Yashili milk, but this is now on the blacklist as well. "Drinking imported milk powder means parents will need to pay some 12,000 yuan more a year. Very few families in China can afford that".