By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
SHANGHAI, Sept. 15 -- Chinese officials made their first arrests in connection with an investigation into contaminated milk powder and said two infants have died after drinking it, while 1,253 are known to have fallen ill.
Officials arrested two brothers, surnamed Geng, who are suspected of mixing a substance known as melamine into milk to try to fool buyers who tested its protein content. Although the chemical, which is used in the manufacturing of plastics, does not add any nutritional value, it boosts readings on tests.
The use of melamine in food products is banned. It is the same substance that had been illegally added to pet food exported to the United States last year that sickened thousands of cats and dogs.
The official New China News Agency said the men, who run a milk collection business, sold about three tons of the contaminated milk daily. At least some of the milk is thought to have been sold to Sanlu Group, the country's biggest producer of powdered milk.
At a news conference, China's Health Ministry announced that two babies who had been given the infant formula had died after developing kidney problems. Vice Health Minister Ma Xiaowei said 53 of the 340 infants hospitalized were in serious condition. The conditions of the other 913 were not life-threatening.
The number of cases announced Monday is more than double the 580 cases acknowledged earlier.
Officials were first alerted to the problem when an unusual number of babies were hospitalized for kidney stones.
Although China's food and drug administration was overhauled last year after a series of embarrassing recalls, the incident shows that weaknesses in the system persist.
Meanwhile, as the number of victims continues to increase, so does evidence of an attempted coverup. Chinese officials say that complaints began as early as March and that tests by Sanlu in August showed that the milk powder contained melamine.
Fonterra, a New Zealand dairy cooperative that owns 43 percent of Sanlu, said Sunday that it had asked its Chinese partner to recall the milk powder at least six weeks ago but that Sanlu waited until Thursday.
On Monday, New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark said she was told of the problem on Sept. 5. When local Chinese officials did not order a recall, she informed their bosses in Beijing.
"We were the whistle-blowers, and they leapt in and ensured there was action on the ground," the Associated Press quoted Clark as saying. "At a local level . . . I think the first inclination was to try and put a towel over it and deal with it without an official recall."
A Sanlu vice president, Zhang Zhenling, apologized at a news briefing Monday in Shijiazhuang, capital of Hebei province, where the company is based. "The serious safety accident of the Sanlu formula milk powder for infants has caused severe harm to many sickened babies and their families. We feel really sad about this," he said, according to a report in state media.