SHANGHAI — Chinese police Monday announced the first arrests in the spreading scandal over tainted milk powder as health officials reported that a second infant had died and 1,253 others had been sickened after ingesting the formula.
The arrest of two brothers in Hebei province, home of the state-owned Sanlu Group that sold the contaminated product, was among a flurry of actions announced by authorities in the wake of the latest food safety problem to hit China. Officials have seized or recalled more than 10,000 tons of Sanlu formula and have ordered a nationwide inspection of fresh milk and cattle feed.
The official New China News Agency, quoting a police spokesman in Hebei, said the brothers, surnamed Geng, had been running a private milk-collecting station since May 2004. The 48-year-old older brother had begun to put melamine into milk at the end of last year, and the younger brother sent the milk to Sanlu. The brothers were among 19 people detained.
Melamine, a chemical used in making plastics and fertilizers, has been used by Chinese businesses to artificially boost protein readings in animal feed and other food products. Pet foods containing melamine-laced ingredients traced to China sickened and killed thousands of dogs and cats in the U.S. last year.
Many infants who were fed Sanlu milk powder developed kidney stones. The two deaths were in Gansu province, a poor area in China's northwest. China's Health Ministry said at a news conference that as of Monday morning 53 babies were in critical condition and 340 others were hospitalized, according to the news agency.
Earlier Chinese media reports said that Sanlu, one of the nation's largest dairy companies, had been receiving complaints about its formula since March but had delayed reporting the problem to the government or issuing a public alert. Sanlu's vice president, Zhang Zhenling, read a letter of apology at a news briefing Monday in Shijiazhuang, capital of Hebei province. "We feel really sad about this," he was quoted as saying.
Sanlu is 43% owned by the New Zealand-based dairy giant Fonterra, which said it first learned of the problem Aug. 2. New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark said Monday that Fonterra tried unsuccessfully to get local Chinese authorities to order a full recall as soon as possible.
The delay in halting sales of the milk powder added to the anger and frustration of Chinese consumers, many of whom have come to mistrust food safety after a number of scandals. In 2004, baby formula missing key ingredients left at least 13 infants dead and hundreds ill from what local residents called "big head disease."
"It's cruel that they make money this way by endangering little babies," said Lin Jinyan, 23, who, with her 9-month-old son, was shopping at a supermarket in Shanghai. Clerks at the market said Sanlu baby formula had been removed from shelves over the weekend.
"I'm worried," Lin added. "We have no choice but to buy milk for babies."