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China milk recall spreads

The industrial chemical melamine is found in milk produced by three of the country's leading dairy companies.

Security staff try to keep order as families with children who are undergoing medical checks for possible kidney stones wait to be seen at a hospital in Chongqing municipality on Sept 19 2008.
Security staff try to keep order as families with children who are undergoing medical checks for possible kidney stones wait to be seen at a hospital in Chongqing municipality on Sept 19 2008.

SHIJIAZHUANG // China's food safety crisis widened after the industrial chemical melamine was found in milk produced by three of the country's leading dairy companies - prompting stores, including Starbucks, to take milk off their shelves. China's national product safety agency said all batches of milk that tested positive were being recalled, and by today the dairy sections of many grocery stores were empty in Beijing and Shanghai.

The recalls come as evidence is mounting that adding chemicals to watered-down milk was a widespread practice in China's dairy industry. The chief financial officer of one of the companies, Mengniu, apologised yesterday for the tainted milk. But he insisted only a small portion of the company's inventory had been contaminated and said the tainted milk came from small-scale dairy farmers. "Large-scale milk farms are very disciplined. They won't take the risk to do something like that," Yao Tongshan said in Hong Kong.

Mr Yao sipped from a carton of milk in a display meant to bolster consumer confidence. The crisis was initially thought to have been confined to tainted milk powder, used to make baby formula, that has been blamed in the deaths of four infants and for sickening 6,200 other children. But tests found melamine, a chemical used in plastics and fertilisers, in samples of liquid milk taken from China's two largest dairy producers Mengniu Dairy Group Co and Yili Industrial Group Co, as well as Shanghai-based Bright Dairy.

They join the discredited Sanlu Group, whose tainted milk powder and infant formula touched off public complaints. The apparently widespread contamination has rapidly become a political headache for a communist government that hoped to be basking in popular adulation over last month's successful Beijing Olympics. Instead, the government is being forced to scramble to regain public confidence. President Hu Jintao, in an address to senior Communist Party members, excoriated local officials for risking the public trust.

"Some officials have ignored public opinion and turned a blind eye to people's hardships, even on major problems that affect people's lives and safety," Mr Hu said yesterday in a largely dry policy speech published today in state newspapers. Also yesterday, the state council ordered hospitals to provide free treatment for sick infants and local officials to redouble efforts to remove all tainted products.

Companies found to have produced contaminated milk will later have to reimburse the government for medical expenses, the council said. * AP