China's Tainted-Milk Crisis Grows Despite Official Claims

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By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, September 28, 2008

BEIJING -- Like thousands of other parents, Gu Yinghua took his child to the kidney unit of a local children's hospital for free testing as China's tainted-milk scandal continued to widen.

Another hospital had declared the 3-year-old boy healthy despite a steady diet of two brands of milk powder and two kinds of milk linked to a toxin that can cause kidney stones. But then his face began to swell.

The second hospital diagnosed kidney disease but not kidney stones, telling a disbelieving Gu to pay upfront for treatment that could last six months to two years. Gu and his wife, Xu Chongju, said they feel doubly cheated and are certain their son's illness is connected to China's latest food safety scare, which has outraged Chinese consumers, embarrassed the government and spurred food recalls in Europe and Asia.

"Those milk powder manufacturers put a lot of money into TV commercials and brag how magical their products are. Of course we parents will think those powders are good for the baby's health," said Xu, who breast-fed her son for a year before turning to formula. "We feel deep regret about this, but what's the use of regret? There is no regret medicine in the world."

Despite official assurances that the problem is under control, the crisis appears to be spreading -- to cake in Hong Kong, a popular brand of candy in Asia and Britain, ham and sausage products in Japan and even a zoo near Shanghai where baby animals were fed formula. More than a dozen countries have banned or recalled Chinese dairy products, and the European Union announced that it was banning all baby food from China containing even trace amounts of milk.

On Friday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommended that consumers avoid Mr. Brown instant coffee and White Rabbit candy, both made in China.

The World Health Organization said the problem has been exacerbated by "a combination of ignorance and deliberate failure to report."

Chinese health officials have confirmed the deaths of four infants who had kidney stones caused by drinking tainted milk powder. More than 54,000 babies have been sickened, including 12,892 who have been hospitalized, officials said. State media have reported that two other babies with kidney stones died this summer and that their parents said they had used a brand of tainted milk powder. But local officials have not confirmed a link to the scandal.

After the glittering success of the Olympic Games, experts and commentators have concluded that there are two Chinas. Elites live in a modern environment protected from an unsafe food supply. But most people live in a country that has made few improvements since 2004, when at least 12 infants died and more than 200 suffered malnutrition after drinking fake baby formula with no nutritional value.

Dozens of people were arrested then, and dozens have been arrested in the current crisis. The government had vowed to step up inspections and improve standards, just as it promised during a massive food and product safety scare last year.

Reporter Jian Guangzhou became frustrated with state-controlled media reports mentioning that formula had sickened some babies but not identifying the company involved. In a Sept. 11 post on Tianya.cn, a Chinese social portal, Jian named Sanlu Dairy Co. as the maker of the tainted formula and lifted the veil on a host of familiar problems: greedy businessmen, unscrupulous advertisers, local officials worried about negative publicity and police determined to halt protests.

Individual farmers, accused of adding the toxin to their milk to make it appear high in protein, are now throwing away milk that no one wants to buy. Dairy factories, accused of not properly testing the milk they bought, have lost credibility and trust.


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