China Widens Milk Probe as 3rd Baby Dies, Cases Mount

Chinese police arrested 12 more people Thursday as a fourth death was reported in a scandal involving tainted milk powder that has sickened more than 6,200 babies. Video by AP
By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 18, 2008

SHANGHAI, Sept. 17 -- A third infant died and the number of sick grew fivefold to more than 6,200 as China's investigation into contaminated baby formula widened to include other dairy products made by two dozen companies and sold around the world.

Supermarkets in Hong Kong pulled ice cream imported from the mainland that had traces of the chemical melamine off their shelves. Taiwan issued an across-the-board ban on dairy products from Chinese companies involved in the scandal. Chinese exporters scrambled to test samples of milk powder sent to Bangladesh, Yemen and Burma.

An inspection this week of dairy companies found that milk powder from at least 22, or one-fifth of all producers, contained melamine, renewing fears that the overhaul of the food safety system last year after a string of recalls was inadequate.

Health Minister Chen Zhu said Wednesday that the government has dispatched 5,000 inspectors to the country's dairy producers and that it would for the first time mandate checks for toxic substances.

The delayed disclosure of the discovery of melamine in the milk powder highlights the weaknesses of China's two-tiered product safety regulatory system, one that is designed to protect and nurture a handful of privileged, mostly state-owned companies such as Sanlu Group, whose products were first found to be contaminated.

Even as inspections at other food-producing companies have grown more strict over the past year, Sanlu was exempt from these checks through a controversial program that is based on the idea that companies that had done well on quality tests in the past could be trusted to regulate themselves.

At least nine of the 22 dairy companies found to have problems were exempt from government inspections for their milk powder or baby formula, according to a Washington Post analysis.

Melamine, a white crystalline powder used in making plastics and tanning leather that was found in the infant formula, was at the heart of China's troubles last year, too.

Unscrupulous dealers had mixed the substance into a key ingredient in pet food because it would boost readings on nutrition tests for protein content. The chemical was linked to the deaths of thousands of dogs and cats, triggering an international inquiry into the safety of Chinese products.

Angry parents of the sick babies in China who consumed the milk powder are now asking: How could a substance that was already known to kill pets have made its way into the food chain and now be killing babies?

"We have aching hearts that our babies are suffering like this at such a young age, and we are hateful to those ones trying to make illegal money out of this," said Fan Xiangjun, 23, a construction worker whose 9-month-old son drank Sanlu baby formula and has been in the hospital in the northwestern city of Lanzhou for 20 days with kidney stones.

As of Wednesday, 158 of the 6,244 babies that have fallen ill are in serious condition and are suffering from acute kidney failure.

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