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

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.

Luo Yunbo, a professor of food science at China Agricultural University and vice president of the Beijing Food Association, thinks the milk powder contamination was the result of "negligence."

"We missed the chance," Luo said. "We should have thought of similar food products that also use nitrogen content as the main test indicator for protein, and we should have thought about how to deal with the problem of fake protein content."

For most of China's food producers, the months since March 2007 -- when the investigation into contaminated pet food from China began -- have been marked by turmoil. Their profits have been cut by inflation and their markets wiped out by import bans from countries concerned about food safety.

As part of an overhaul that included the government-ordered execution of the former head of the State Food and Drug Administration and several of his deputies, China last year began random spot-checks of key exports such as wheat and other grain products and seafood.

Sanlu, however, is one of 2,152 companies that make products that have been awarded a special three-year "mianjian," or inspection-exempt status. In the eyes of Chinese authorities, Sanlu, which received its milk powder exemption in December 2005, had proved that its internal controls were so good that the government no longer needed to monitor its production and shipping process.

"The mianjian system is wrong. . . . You cannot exempt inspections simply because it has been good in the past," said He Bing, a professor at the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing, who has been pushing to abolish the program.

In a notice posted early Thursday, China's General Administration for Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine said it would revoke mianjian licenses -- the pride of the companies that had them and used them on advertisements -- for all food producers effective immediately. "The national exemption marks on their products and printed packages are no longer valid," the watchdog agency said.

Dairy products produced by Mengniu, Yashili and Shanghai Yili AB Foods that were recalled on Wednesday were also part of this inspection-exempt program.

Mengniu, China's largest dairy company, announced that it had stopped production of its milk powder and was recalling it from stores. The company said it was "deeply sorry" and promised to compensate victims.

The delay from March, when Sanlu first started hearing complaints from parents, and June 28, when the first kidney stone case was reported, and then Sept. 11, when a public warning was issued and the milk powder recalled, speaks to the shortcomings that remain in China's food safety system.

Zhang Wei, a doctor, said he knew there was something wrong with the milk powder three months ago, when 14 babies in a row were brought to his hospital with the same nightmarish symptoms.

The infants, ranging from newborn to 11 months, were feverish, vomiting and could not urinate. Zhang, chief urologist at the People's Liberation Army No. 1 Hospital in Lanzhou, knew they had kidney stones, which occur when urine has too much of a substance that can form small crystals.

"At the start, we were thinking it could be water, but after asking the parents, we found out they all drink different waters. Some take well water; some, tap water. So it could not be water contamination. Plus the babies don't smoke, eat. The only thing is they all drink Sanlu milk," Zhang said in a phone interview Wednesday.

Chinese milk powder is banned in the United States, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has said it is concerned that some may have made its way into the country illegally and warned consumers to avoid milk powder from China.

Researchers Liu Songjie, Wu Meng and Crissie Ding contributed to this report.

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