x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

China's tainted milk crisis widens

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

A young Chinese child undergoes treatment at a hospital after taking tainted milk powder.
A young Chinese child undergoes treatment at a hospital after taking tainted milk powder.

BEIJING // China's latest tainted product crisis widened today after government tests found the industrial chemical melamine in liquid milk produced by three of the country's leading dairy companies. The crisis roiling China's dairy industry also took on more international tones, with a recall in Hong Kong and as regulators from the European Union and the United States were in town today to discuss joint efforts to improve China's product safety record. The scandal was thought to have been initially confined to tainted milk powder, blamed for four infant deaths and illnesses in 6,200 others. But about 10 per cent of liquid milk samples taken from Mengniu Dairy Group Co and Yili Industrial Group Co - China's two largest dairy producers - contained melamine, according to a report by the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine posted on the agency's website. Milk from Shanghai-based Bright Dairy also showed contamination. "AQSIQ will strictly find out the reason for adding the melamine and severely punish those who are responsible," the notice said. It said all the batches that tested positive were being recalled. Reactions were immediate with major Hong Kong grocery chains PARKnSHOP and Wellcome pulling all liquid milk by Mengniu from shelves. A day earlier, Hong Kong recalled milk, yogurt, ice cream and other products made by Yili Industrial Group Co. Starbucks Corp said its 300 cafes in mainland China had pulled milk supplied by Mengniu. Starbucks said no employees or customers had fallen ill from the milk. Earlier this week, Mengniu's chief executive officer Niu Gensheng vowed to create a clean dairy product market, saying "if this thing cannot be properly dealt with, I'll resign", according to the financial magazine Caijing. The scandal began with complaints over milk powder by the Sanlu Group Co, one of China's best-known and most respected brands, but it quickly became a much larger issue as government tests found that one-fifth of the companies producing baby milk powder had melamine in their products. Though most of the dairy products involved are only sold domestically, two of the companies exported their products to five countries in Asia and Africa. Today, regulators for consumer product safety in the US, EU, and China met to announce a joint initiative on consumer safety issues. "The situation underscores the need for these kinds of conversations. We must have confidence that we can reach out to our Chinese and EU counterparts ... whenever we encounter problems," said Nancy Nord, acting chair of the US Consumer Product Safety Commission. Thousands of worried parents have filled hospitals, many hovering over sons and daughters hooked to IV drips after drinking milk powder tainted with melamine, a toxic industrial chemical that can cause kidney stones and lead to kidney failure. Some 1,300 babies, mostly newborns, remain hospitalized, with 158 suffering from acute kidney failure. Like many of the babies at the Peace Hospital in Shijiazhuang, Yao Haoge, 11 months old, had an IV hooked into a vein in her head. Diagnosed with two large kidney stones, she had been drinking formula by Sanlu since birth. "We don't make much money, but we wanted to buy good milk powder," said her father, Yao Weiguan, a labourer from a small town an hour's train ride from Shijiazhuang. "We thought it was good and now it's given us problems." Questions continued to swirl about the handling of the scandal by milk producer Sanlu and government officials. The company reportedly received complaints about its formula as early as March and tests revealed the contamination by early August, just before the Olympics. Sanlu went public with a recall on Sept 11 after its New Zealand stakeholder told the New Zealand government, which then informed the Chinese government. Melamine has no nutritional value but is high in nitrogen, making products with it appear to have a higher protein content. Suppliers trying to cut costs are believed to have added the toxic chemical to watered-down milk. Police in northern China's Hebei province, where Sanlu is based, arrested 12 more people yesterday, bringing the total to 18. Police said six suspects allegedly sold melamine, while the others were accused of adding the chemical to milk. 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 a pet food ingredient tainted with melamine. In 2004, more than 200 Chinese infants suffered malnutrition and at least 12 died after being fed phoney formula that contained no nutrients. * AP