BEIJING — They were Premier Zhou Enlai's favorite late-night snack. He loved White Rabbit candy so much he gave a bag to U.S. President Richard Nixon during his historic visit to China. But the brand, beloved by generations of Chinese, took a hit after it was linked to the tainted milk scandal.
The Shanghai-based maker of the candy said Friday that it had halted production because of suspected melamine contamination. The chewy vanilla-flavored White Rabbit sweets have been pulled from store shelves around Asia and in Britain.
The Guan Sheng Yuan Co. was still waiting for test results on samples of its exported products, but all sales have been stopped as a precaution, said Ge Junjie, a vice president of Bright Foods Co., which owns the Shanghai maker.
"It's a tragedy for the Chinese food industry and a big lesson for us as it ruined the time-honored brand," Ge was quoted as saying by the Shanghai Daily.
The hugely popular sweets are sold in more than 50 countries. Overseas sales have reached $160 million in the last five years.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Friday advised consumers not to eat White Rabbit candy and urged retailers to pull it from stores. The agency also recommended avoiding Mr. Brown instant coffee and milk tea products being recalled by Taiwan's Car Food Industrial Co., though it said it was not aware of any illnesses in the United States linked to either the candy or the coffee and tea products.
Tests in Singapore and New Zealand found White Rabbit sweets were tainted with melamine, the industrial chemical that has been found in milk and other dairy products in China.
Used in making plastic and fertilizer, it has been blamed for causing kidney problems in infants and young children, sickening about 54,000 and killing four babies. About 13,000 remain hospitalized.
The widening scandal has dealt a blow to China's leading candy maker, which has been producing the sweets for about half a century.
"White Rabbit is a famous brand, with huge brand assets. It's almost an icon and carries lots of memories. Imagine if the same thing happened to Coca-Cola," said branding expert Kara Chan, a professor in the communication studies department at Hong Kong Baptist University.
White Rabbit was first produced in 1959, "in celebration of the 10th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China," according to the company Web site.
Its historic pedigree got an even bigger boost in 1972 when the Chinese premier gave the candy, along with two pandas, as a state gift for the visiting President Nixon as a sign of friendship.
Virtually all Chinese have fond memories of the sticky, taffy-like confection wrapped in edible rice paper. With its distinctive red, white, and blue packaging and wide-eyed namesake, White Rabbit candies are ubiquitous, routinely offered up in homes throughout China.
"When we were in school, all my classmates liked White Rabbit," said Su Yan, a 19-year-old sales clerk. "Girls would ask their boyfriends to buy it for them and the candy would be served on occasions like holiday receptions, a graduation party and wedding ceremonies."
Retailer Carrefour and supermarket chain Jingkelong in Beijing said their stores had pulled the candy, but other grocers, including one in the popular Silk Market, still stocked it Friday.
It's not the first time White Rabbit has faced allegations of contamination.
Last year, it was at the heart of another controversy, with the Philippine government saying that the candy contained formaldehyde and demanding a recall. The company blamed counterfeit candy for the problem.
Concern about White Rabbit candy has spread as far as South America, where health authorities in Suriname ordered stores to stop selling it as a precautionary measure. The candy is widely available in Suriname, where people of Chinese heritage comprise about 8% of the population.
In Peru, White Rabbit candy was among five milk-based Chinese products banned for import or sale by the health ministry.