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THE WORLD

Third baby dies in China milk crisis

Illnesses caused by tainted formula skyrocket, and more products test positive for contamination.

September 17, 2008|Don Lee | Times Staff Writer

SHANGHAI — China's troubles with tainted baby formula grew into a national crisis today as health officials reported that a third infant had died, the number of illnesses skyrocketed to 6,244 and products from 22 companies tested positive for contamination with the industrial chemical melamine.

The number of infants sickened after ingesting the tainted powdered milk was five times more than what the government reported Monday. The new figures showed that 1,327 babies remained hospitalized, with 158 suffering from acute kidney failure, China's health minister, Chen Zhu, said at a news conference today in Beijing.

The Sanlu Group, a large state-owned dairy producer, has been the focus of the scandal since the issue came to light last week. But on Tuesday, China's General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine said that it had inspected 491 batches of baby formula powder produced by 109 companies.

The agency said two of the 22 producers that sold tainted formula -- Qingdao-based Suokang and Yashili of Guangdong province -- had also exported it to Bangladesh, Yemen, Myanmar, Burundi and Gabon. Test batches of those products showed no melamine.

Chen said the government was establishing a hotline and taking other steps to inform consumers about recalls and what products were safe.

Melamine, commonly used in making plastics and fertilizers, has been added by Chinese businesses to artificially boost protein readings in animal feed and foods, even though it adds no nutritional value. Last year, pet foods containing melamine from China sickened and killed thousands of dogs and cats in the U.S.

Although melamine itself isn't considered toxic, combined with other compounds it can cause kidney problems. Many infants who had consumed Sanlu formula developed kidney stones.

"This is a disaster to China's entire dairy industry and a huge crisis," Luo Yunbo, dean of the College of Food Science and Nutritional Engineering at China Agricultural University, said after learning of the test results. "The entire industry really needs serious self-examination and introspection."

Last week, when Sanlu's problems became public, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned consumers to avoid buying infant formula imported from China. There is no indication that tainted milk powder has made it to the U.S.

Li Changjiang, head of the quality and food-safety agency, reiterated today that inspectors would recall all the problematic powdered milk and carry out a nationwide investigation. Officials say they already have seized or recalled millions of pounds of Sanlu formula. The chairwoman of Sanlu was removed Tuesday, and two more milk suppliers were arrested in Hebei province, according to the official New China News Agency.

Formula made by the nation's top two dairy producers, Mengniu Dairy Co. and Inner Mongolia Yili Industrial Dairy Group Co., also tested positive for melamine. Officials at Mengniu and Yili, which are publicly listed companies, could not be reached for comment Tuesday night.

Yili was the official supplier to the Beijing Olympics. Authorities said none of the food prepared for the Olympics and Paralympics was found to have melamine residue. Yili and other dairy producers supply powdered milk drinks for adults and seniors.

It wasn't clear how many foreign brands were tested, if any. Nestle's baby formula is sold at many supermarkets, but it can cost more than twice as much as a Chinese brand.

With incomes rising, China's infant formula business has boomed into a multibillion-dollar industry. But four years ago at least 13 babies died and dozens of others suffered serious malnutrition after they drank fake powdered milk in Anhui, a poor province in eastern China.

The latest scandal has sparked concern and anger among Chinese consumers, especially after Chinese media reported that Sanlu had been receiving complaints about its formula since March but had delayed reporting the problem to the government or issuing a recall.

The first two deaths were in Gansu province, a poor area in China's northwest. The third was in Zhejiang province, a vibrant economic area in the east.

After results of the baby milk tests were reported, many people expressed outrage on the Internet.

"My goodness, look at the long list. I feel that I cannot breathe," said one posting. Said another: "Domestic products, I really want to support all of you, but why do you treat us like this?"

On Monday, police in Hebei said two brothers who had been running a private milk-collecting station since May 2004 were involved in putting melamine into milk and sending the product to Sanlu. One of the two people reported arrested was identified Tuesday as a 40-year-old man from Luquan. Local police said that in November 2007, the man, working with his wife and son, bought about 450 pounds of melamine and mixed it with fresh milk, presumably adding water too. He resold the milk to Sanlu Group, which used it to produce powdered formula.

"Without enough regulation in the industry, many companies are engaged in malicious competition over price and try everything to lower costs," said Luo of China Agricultural University. "Last year's pet food issue should have been a warning bell," he added. The quality agency "should have put more emphasis on this issue because if melamine was added to animal feed, any industry that uses protein level as a standard test could have similar problems. But they didn't inspect this area thoroughly."

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don.lee@latimes.com

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