Federal officials on Thursday warned consumers to avoid buying any infant formula imported from China, citing reports of dozens of babies in that country who fell ill with kidney stones after drinking a brand called Sanlu, resulting in at least one death.
The warning was aimed at Chinese American communities across the United States, including Southern California, home to one of the largest ethnic Chinese populations in the nation.
Importing Chinese-manufactured baby formula into the U.S. is illegal, but federal officials say they know of at least one case in which a Chinese brand was found in a New York store in 2004.
"We're concerned that there may be some formula that has come in illegally and could potentially be in the ethnic Chinese markets," said Janice Oliver, a deputy director at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition in College Park, Md.
There is no indication that tainted formula has made it onto U.S. store shelves.
The FDA has strict regulatory authority over baby formula and allows only six companies to distribute it in the United States. None of the firms import ingredients from China, Oliver said.
The six manufacturers are Abbott Nutrition, Mead Johnson Nutritionals, Nestle USA, PBM Nutritionals, Solus Products -- which are all based in the U.S. -- and SHS/Nutricia, based in Britain.
The contaminant in the Chinese infant formula is melamine, the same substance found in tainted pet food that sickened or killed thousands of dogs and cats in 2007.
The addition of melamine, which is normally found in plastics, can make food appear, in testing, to have higher levels of protein. Ingestion of melamine can cause kidney failure.
Cat Chao, a Mandarin-language radio host for Pasadena-based KAZN-AM (1300), said the brand of the tainted baby formula, Sanlu, is popular in China, but said she didn't believe it was available in the U.S.
Nonetheless, the news was a topic of conversation among her co-workers Thursday.
"We do feel like those business guys who want to make money from this product, sometimes you really get angry at those people," Chao said.
In the meantime, Sanlu company officials ordered a recall of its infant formula on Friday, according to the China Daily, the Chinese state-run English newspaper.
The recall came a day after the death of an infant in the northwestern province of Gansu, the newspaper reported.
The infant was among 59 who have been diagnosed with kidney stones in Gansu province this year; there were none in 2006 and 2007.
Reports of kidney stones in infants have spread to six other provinces, according to Chinese media reports.
This is not the first time that problems have been identified with baby formula made in China.
The FDA said that in 2004, Chinese-manufactured infant formula was found in an ethnic Chinese market in New York .
There were no reported illnesses, but lab tests found low quantities of protein, fat, calcium and magnesium in the formula.
Earlier that year in China, at least 13 babies died and more than 170 suffered serious malnutrition when they drank fake milk powder in the impoverished eastern province of Anhui, which is one of the seven provinces affected by the current illnesses.
Lab tests showed that the purported formula was made of starch, flour and sugar.