China's leaders and health authorities battled today to contain a growing scandal over widespread contamination of milk supplies as the first sickness from the crisis was reported outside mainland China. More than 6,200 infants have become sick and four babies have died in the mainland after being fed baby formula laced with a banned industrial chemical. No illnesses had been reported elsewhere until the Hong Kong government said a three-year-old girl had been diagnosed with a kidney stone after drinking milk containing melamine.
The girl was diagnosed with a kidney stone but was in good condition and has been discharged from the hospital, the government said. Delays in releasing critical information about the contamination of China's milk supplies hampered Beijing's ability to rapidly deal with the problem and warn consumers, a World Health Organization (WHO)official said today. Chinese authorities are now addressing the problem seriously by recalling tainted products and undertaking food safety inspections, WHO Western Pacific director Shigeru Omi said, adding that his group began to help after being informed about the issue on Sept 11.
"It is so evident that some people withheld the information for some time," Mr Omi told a news conference ahead of a regional meeting of WHO officials in Manila. The government has launched high-profile efforts to show it is on top of the crisis, with Premier Wen Jiabao appearing on state-run television over the weekend to demand that public safety be put "at the top of the agenda." Since the problem of tainted milk products became public knowledge less than two weeks ago, the crisis has spread to include almost all of China's biggest dairy companies.
Supermarket chains PARKnSHOP and Wellcome in China have now started removing Nestle milk powder from their shelves. A spokeswomen for the chains said the action was taken as a precaution after Hong Kong's Apple Daily newspaper reported that tests it commissioned showed that Nestle milk powder made in China's northeastern Heilongjiang province contained melamine. Taiwanese company King Car Co has recalled packs of its Mr Brown instant coffee and milk tea containing contaminated milk powder imported from China. Japan and Singapore have recalled Chinese-made dairy products, and the governments of Malaysia and Brunei announced bans on milk products from China even though neither country currently imports Chinese dairy items.
The concern is because melamine has been found not only in powdered milk - used to make baby formula and other products - but in liquid milk sold by China's biggest dairies. Melamine is used in making plastics and is high in nitrogen, which registers as protein in tests of milk. Though health experts believe ingesting minute amounts poses no danger, melamine can cause kidney stones, which can lead to kidney failure. Infants are particularly vulnerable.
Some of the farmers who sell milk to Chinese food companies are thought to have used melamine to disguise watered-down milk and fatten profit margins hurt by rising costs for feed, fuel and labor. * AP