Chinese families with their babies rush to a hospital for checkups in Chongqing. Nearly 53,000 children in China have been sickened by milk powder contaminated by an industrial chemical, the government said Monday, dramatically ramping up its previous figures. (AFP)
by Dan Martin
BEIJING, (AFP) – China’s toxic milk scandal escalated Monday as officials admitted nearly 53,000 children had been sickened by contaminated products and more countries moved to ban or limit Chinese dairy imports.
In a dramatic update of previous figures, the health ministry said a total of 52,857 children were taken to hospital after drinking milk thought to have been contaminated by the industrial chemical melamine.
Most had “basically recovered” but 12,892 of them remained in hospital, a health ministry official told AFP.
Joining a clutch of other countries, Taiwan said it was banning all Chinese milk products with immediate notice, regardless of brand, because of consumer concerns.
“There is no timeframe for the ban,” said Wang Chih-chao, an official with the Department of Health, but said milk products already on the shelves after passing safety tests would not be removed.
Meanwhile retailers in Hong Kong said they were pulling more milk products off their shelves after samples tested positive for melamine.
Melamine, normally used in making plastics, was first found in infant milk formula in Chinese markets but has since been detected in a range of products with dairy ingredients both in China and abroad.
The discovery, the latest in a series of scandals to tarnish the reputation of Chinese products, has led to mass recalls and a Chinese government campaign to tighten quality inspections across the dairy sector.
Three children have died and 104 are still in serious condition, the health ministry said, with symptoms including kidney stones.
A fourth child was also reported dead by authorities in Xinjiang province but has not been added to the national figure.
The scandal stems from the practice of adding melamine to watered-down milk to give it the appearance of higher protein levels.
A host of countries — Bangladesh, Brunei, Burundi, Japan, Gabon, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore and Tanzania — have barred Chinese milk products or taken some other form of action to curb consumption.
Hong Kong’s government said a three-year-old girl developed a kidney stone after drinking tainted Chinese milk powder — thought to be the first related sickness outside mainland China.
The girl has since left hospital and is in good condition, it added.
Retailers in the southern Chinese territory said they were emptying shelves of all milk powder products from Nestle, plastic-bottled Dutch Lady milk, and canned Mr Brown coffee.
Swiss food giant Nestle said it was “confident” its products in China were safe and that none had been adulterated with melamine.
The Centre for Food Safety, a Hong Kong government body, said it had found melamine in a Nestle Dairy Farm pure milk sample from northeastern China.
Singapore has also found melamine in a Chinese-made milk candy, authorities there said late Sunday.
Chinese supermarkets and shops have also been pulling milk and a wide range of other dairy products off their shelves.
The melamine scandal first came to light two weeks ago in state-controlled media, but some press reports say the scam had been going on for years.
Shigeru Omi, Western Pacific director of the UN World Health Organization, raised concerns the health risks were not reported earlier by China.
He told a press conference in Manila that “it seems people already knew of this problem for some time and did not share this information.”
New Zealand dairy giant Fonterra, which has a joint venture with the Sanlu Group, the first company identified in the scandal, said it knew for weeks and had been pushing for a recall.
China has been hit by a wave of embarrassing scandals in recent years over dangerous products including food, drugs and toys, spoiling its manufacturing reputation.
Last year, melamine was found in pet food containing Chinese ingredients that killed cats and dogs in the United States.
Premier Wen Jiabao pledged Sunday to put an end to the recurring scares.
“What we want to do now is prevent this happening again, not just with milk products, but with all foods,” he told Beijing residents during footage shown on state television.