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Contamination sweeps Chinese dairy industry

China is under the global microscope again, as more dairy products have been found to have been contaminated with melamine, causing four infant deaths and sickening more than 6000.  The announcement was made as news revealed a possible cover-up dating back to August 2nd.


September 19, 2008
By Globe and Mail

September 19, 2008

BEIJING -An illegal chemical has been found in a widening range of Chinese dairy products, including milk and yogurt, in the latest dramatic escalation of a food crisis that has already killed four babies and sickened more than 6,000 others.

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Melamine, a chemical used in plastics and fertilizers, was discovered yesterday in more than one-quarter of the 30 dairy products sold by Yili, one of China's biggest brands and an official Olympic sponsor. It was also found in milk at China's three biggest dairy companies.


It was a rapid expansion of a scandal that began with tainted baby formula at a single company and soon spread to 21 other producers.

Thousands of frightened parents flooded into Chinese hospitals yesterday to seek medical tests for babies who had consumed the tainted products.

There was growing evidence that Chinese authorities knew of the scandal in early August but failed to announce it publicly for fear of embarrassment during the Beijing Games.


Officials said a local government in Hebei province knew of the chemical contamination on Aug. 2, but failed to report it.


The government yesterday announced the death of a fourth infant, along with 12 more arrests of dairy industry workers who had allegedly added the chemical to dairy products to masquerade as protein. Melamine is illegal in food products, but some of the suspects had allegedly been adding it since 2005.


In the crowded corridors of one Beijing hospital yesterday, long queues of parents were waiting for tests on their infants. One mother, a 28-year-old accountant who gave her name as Wang, had already been told that her baby son was sick with kidney stones from the tainted milk powder. She was seeking a second opinion in a desperate hope that the first diagnosis was wrong.


"When he was diagnosed, my legs suddenly felt weak and I could hardly stand up," Mrs. Wang said, her eyes wet with tears.


"It was like an earthquake. All of my family's hopes are attached to this boy. I'm very worried and nervous."


When the tainted-milk crisis first erupted, Mrs. Wang thought she was safe because she hadn't bought any milk powder from Sanlu, the first company to be identified in the scandal. But then this week she saw the televised news of the announcement that 22 brands were found to contain the dangerous chemical. One of the brands was Yashili, which she normally gave to her one-year-old son.


"I was terrified and I became very nervous because my son had recently been crying every night," she said. "He never cried so often before."

She wasn't satisfied with the government's response to the crisis. "To punish or dismiss officials after a tragedy is meaningless. Where were the regular inspections by state inspectors? Why didn't they discover the problem? I guess they were just going through the motions, just collecting their salaries without working."


Mrs. Wang said she switched to a foreign milk-powder brand after the scandal erupted, but she doesn't trust any brands now. She criticized the Chinese film stars and other celebrities who had given their endorsement to the products. "They need to take responsibility for this. I trusted them. How could they promote products that they didn't even use?"


Another mother, 37-year-old Ba Yuping, said she can't afford the imported milk-powder brands, so she had been giving Sanlu milk powder to her 10-week-old daughter. "She's been crying more lately, and I don't know if it's because of the milk," Mrs. Ba said as she waited anxiously for test results at the hospital.


"I'm very worried and upset about this. So many brands have problems now, which tells us that it's a government problem. The inspection offices aren't doing their job. The babies are too small to complain, so we can't know about any problems until the government notifies us."


In Hong Kong, the government ordered the recall of all Yili dairy products after tests found melamine in eight of the 30 Yili products that were tested, including milk beverages, yogurt and ice cream. In Singapore, authorities announced a recall of an ice-cream bar made by a Yili affiliate in Shanghai.


Of the 22 Chinese dairy producers found to have melamine in their products, two had exported some of their products to Bangladesh, Yemen, Myanmar, Gabon and Burundi. So far there are no reports of any tainted dairy products reaching North America.


Chinese state television also revealed last night that melamine had been found in regular milk produced by three leading dairy companies.


The government did not update its toll of children sickened by the milk powder, but on Wednesday it said more than 6,200 babies were ill, including 1,327 who were still in hospital and 158 with acute kidney failure.


One of the arrested suspects yesterday was a man who allegedly confessed that he had sold 4,000 kilograms of melamine to milk suppliers in the past 18 months.


China has ordered thousands of inspectors to be stationed at dairy factories to oversee the production of milk powder. It has also revoked the "inspection-free" status of some food producers, which had allowed them to introduce new products without being inspected.