Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Melamine has been found in the powdered milk products of over 22 Chinese companies following widespread checks, announced the Chief of Food Safety Li Changjiang today. A third baby died in Zhejiang, and health minister Chen Zhu reports a further 6,244 are ill after having drunk the infected milk, 1,327 are currently hospitalised and 158 are suffering “acute renal insufficiency”. But it is forecast that the number will rise as analysis are still underway and the illness takes time to manifest. Many of the hospitalised babies are “gravely” ill: they cannot urinate and vomit in continuation.
The results of a government-led probe showed that out of 109 dairy producers checked, 22 had been found to have produced baby milk contaminated with the chemical melamine: it is normally used for making plastics and glues. Melamine is rich in nitrogen, an element often used to measure protein levels, and so can be used to disguise diluted milk, and go undetected in superficial quality controls. Sales of powdered milk have been stopped while thousands of parents from Southern China are flying to Hong Kong in the hopes of buying safer milk products.
The scandal rocked sector leader Sanlu last week. The company defended itself by pointing the finger at its milk suppliers. The government has charged for officials in Shijianzhuang, capital of Hebei and company Headquarters, of having been aware of the adulterated baby formula since August 2nd but of having “covered it up” during the Olympics, only informing the governor of Heibei on September 8th. Companies such as Mongolia’s Yili Group, official sponsors of the Beijing games; Mengniu, quoted n the Hong Kong stock exchange; Guangdong Yashili Group and a Qingdao Suncare Co. Ltd who export milk formula to Yemen, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Gabon and Burundi, are also involved. All exports have been recalled, even if inspectors say no melamine was found in products for foreign markets.
China is the world’s second largest producer of baby formula and for over 15 years Sanlu has been the leader in the sector. In 2007 alone it covered 18.3% of Chinese production. 43% of the company is owned by the New Zealand group Fonterra, who immediately informed Premier Helen Clark, who in turn informed the Chinese government. Beijing only moved following pressure from New Zealand.
Chief inspector Li Changjiang explained that “China's [food] safety standards……did not include any checks for toxic substances [such as melamine] because nobody had ever considered the possibility that these substances could be added…We will revise food codes to include checks on toxicity”.
Experts observe that situations such as these can have a knock on effect raising concerns for the safety of other food products.