SHIJIAZHUANG, CHINA // Chinese police arrested 12 more people today as a fourth death was reported in a scandal involving tainted milk powder that has sickened more than 6,200 babies. Shi Guizhong, a spokesman for Hebei provincial police, said the dozen arrests throughout the province this morning brought the total to 18. Six allegedly sold the industrial chemical melamine, while the other 12 were milk suppliers accused of adding the chemical to milk.
The government in the far western region of Xinjiang said a person had died there after consuming tainted milk powder. A notice on the government's website did not say if the victim was a baby. The other three deaths were infants. Mr Shi said Hebei police and government officials were starting a 10-day campaign to focus on melamine contamination. Suppliers to the dairy companies are believed to have added the banned chemical, normally used in plastics, to watered-down milk to make it appear higher in protein. Police also confiscated 300kg of suspected chemicals, including 223kg of melamine, he said.
In addition to the 18 arrests, 87 people were summoned for questioning and 28 people have been detained, according to the Shijiazhuang vice mayor Zhang Meizhi. One suspect, surnamed Su, told police he sold milk suppliers a total of 4 tonnes of melamine in 20kg bags from February 2007 to July 2008, Mr Shi told a news conference. Shijiazhuang, Hebei's capital, is the headquarters for Sanlu Group Co, the dairy company whose milk powder has been linked to all of the known illnesses. Dozens of parents, some cradling babies, lined up today outside Sanlu's offices to get refunds for their purchases of tainted milk powder.
The mood was calm but confusion prevailed as parents traded tips on what products they thought were safe. A 30-year-old mother who gave only her surname, Wang, said her one-year-old daughter seemed healthy but that she was still worried. The three major milk powder brands that she usually buys - Yili, Mengniu and Sanlu - have all been recalled in the past week. "Of course as a mother, I was really nervous," she said. "Now we have no idea what kind of milk to give the baby. They all have problems."
The widening crisis has raised questions about the effectiveness of tighter controls China promised after a series of food safety scares in recent years over contaminated seafood, toothpaste and ingredients for pet food. Hong Kong newspapers reported that many mainland residents were crossing the border into the territory to buy infant milk. Store owners said stocks were running low, but that there has been no panic buying.
Authorities in Singapore said they were following Hong Kong and recalling ice cream bars made by Shanghai Yili AB Foods after Hong Kong said melamine was found in them. Singapore said it would conduct tests on other imported milk and dairy products from China. China's government has dispatched thousands of inspectors to monitor milk powder producers after health officials reported yesterday that the number of babies sickened by tainted formula rose to 6,244.
The Health Minister Chen Zhu has said more than 1,300 babies, mostly newborns, remain hospitalised, with 158 suffering from acute kidney failure. The numbers of affected babies are expected increase as "more and more parents take kids to the hospital", he said. The head of China's quality control watchdog agency, Li Changjiang, has said that testing showed that 20 per cent of firms producing milk powder had used dairy products containing melamine. Inspectors will now start testing for melamine in all dairy products, Mr Li said. There will also be an increase in inspections for melamine in imported and exported feed, the agency said on its Web site.