China Starts Inquiry Into Baby Formula

By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 13, 2008

SHANGHAI, Sept. 12 -- China's Health Ministry on Friday launched a nationwide probe into the milk powder that has been linked to kidney stones in infants and said the powder could have been contaminated with the chemical melamine.

In the northwestern province of Gansu alone, hospitals have logged 59 cases of kidney stones in infants this year, compared with none last year and the year before. Six other provinces have also reported cases. At least one of the babies has died.

The common link: All the infants had been fed milk powder made by the Sanlu Group Co.

The investigation has renewed fears about the safety of food and other exports from China, which last year recalled billions of dollars' worth of products, from toothpaste to toys, that were linked to injuries and deaths around the world.

Melamine, a nitrogen-rich chemical used in the manufacturing of plastics, played a prominent role in a food and product safety crisis last year. It had been illegally added to a key ingredient in pet food to generate false readings on nutrition tests. Although the melamine did boost the mixture's protein content on paper, it also sickened and killed thousands of pets in the United States.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration this week contacted the five companies approved to sell milk-based formula in the United States and confirmed that they are not using ingredients from China.

While Sanlu infant formula has not been approved for import into the United States, officials were worried Friday that some shipments may have slipped through, reaching shelves at ethnic markets. Janice Oliver, a deputy director at the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, warned consumers to avoid infant formula from China.

The Chinese government said Friday that it had recalled 700 tons of milk powder and sent an investigative team to Sanlu's factories.

Mao Qunan, a spokesman for the Health Ministry, vowed "severe punishment to those who are responsible," according to the official New China News Agency.

Sanlu officials declined to comment, but the New Zealand dairy cooperative Fonterra, which owns 43 percent of Sanlu, confirmed that the Chinese company is "managing a quality issue related to its products."

"Fonterra is pushing hard to make sure that Sanlu is working closely with the China Government to ensure that everything that can be done is being done to protect the safety and health of consumers," the company said in a statement.

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