Image: Customers look at a poster
Wu Hong  /  EPA
Three customers look at a poster which shows which milk products have detectable levels of the banned chemical melamine at a supermarket in downtown Qingdao city, eastern China's Shandong province on Sept. 19.
updated 9/19/2008 1:04:24 PM ET 2008-09-19T17:04:24

China's tainted product crisis has extended to liquid milk, the nation's watchdog agency said Friday, as Starbucks dumped a supplier in China.

The General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine said milk sold in liquid form by three leading Chinese dairies is contaminated with melamine, the industrial chemical that as been linked to the deaths of four infants and illnesses in 6,200 others.

A report posted Friday on the agency's Web site says test results showed nearly 10 percent of samples taken from Mengniu Dairy Group Co. and Yili Industrial Group Co. — China's two largest dairy companies — contained up to 8.4 milligrams of melamine per kilogram.

Milk from Shanghai-based Bright Dairy also showed melamine contamination.

Starbucks Corp. said its 300 cafes in mainland China had pulled milk supplied by Mengniu. It said no one had fallen ill from the milk.

The recalls come as evidence is mounting that adding chemicals to watered-down milk was a widespread practice in China's dairy industry.

Powder pulled in July
Meanwhile, the company at the heart of the tainted milk scandal ordered distributors to pull its products off store shelves in early July, weeks before it went public with the problem, two distributors said Friday.

The statements by the distributors in Hebei province, where Sanlu Group Co. is headquartered, raise further questions about when the company and government knew that milk powder being feed to babies was tainted with melamine, a banned industrial chemical. A New Zealand stakeholder in Sanlu has said it was told in early August, before the start of the Beijing Olympics, that there was a problem.

The public was not told until Sept. 11 — after its New Zealand stakeholder told the New Zealand government, which then informed the Chinese government — that the powder, used in baby formula and other products, contained the chemical melamine. The milk is blamed for four infant deaths and the illnesses of 6,200 others.

"We were asked by Sanlu to take all their 2007 to July 2008 baby powder off the shelves in early July" and replace it with new powder, said one of the distributors, Zhang Youqiang.

"Then things got weird. In early August, they came to us again and said all the new Sanlu baby milk powder we had just put on the shelves did not pass 'qualified aviation standards,'" said Zhang, who declined to give his company name for fear of offending Sanlu. Zhang said he was never told what qualified aviation standards meant.

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Zhang said he now has warehouses full of contaminated milk powder and is trying to get refunds from Sanlu.

Phone calls to Sanlu rang unanswered Friday and its Web site was not working. China's quality watchdog did not respond after asking that questions be faxed to it.

'I'm just praying'
Thousands of anxious parents rushed their infants to hospitals for health checks on Thursday.

Twenty percent of Chinese companies that produce milk powder have been found with products tainted by melamine, including the two biggest dairies. More than 6,000 babies have been sickened by the tainted formula.

Melamine, used in plastics, fertilizers and flame retardants, has no nutritional value but is high in nitrogen, making products with it appear higher in protein — a way to cut costs for the manufacturer.

At the Beijing Children’s Hospital, more than 1,000 parents waited for check-ups as they carried their sleeping infants and toddlers. By 2 p.m, doctors had seen only half of the 1,200 who waited in line.

Parents said their children had been drinking three major brands of baby milk powder, all of which have been recalled after government tests found melamine.

Fang Sunyi, 28, who was holding her 3-month-old son, said he had been fed formula made by Sanlu Group Co. and Yashili since birth.

“I’m just praying there’s nothing wrong with my son,” she said. “We first fed him Sanlu, then stopped because that was reported to be bad quality, then we switched to Yashili, but now there’s nothing left. We don’t know what’s safe anymore and we don’t want to take any chances.”

In Shijiazhuang, the new chairman and chief executive officer of Sanlu, the dairy company whose milk powder has been linked to all of the known illnesses, apologized at a news conference Thursday.

Zhang Zhenling said he wanted to “express deepest apologies” for the tainted milk powder and for “harm and losses to consumers.” He bowed three times.

This is the second major case in recent years involving baby formula. In 2004, more than 200 Chinese infants suffered malnutrition and at least 12 died after being fed phony formula that contained no nutrients.

The official Xinhua News Agency said the latest death was a baby in the far western region of Xinjiang. However, an official at the No. 2 Agriculture and Production Corps Hospital in Yanqi, Xinjiang, said it was too early to say if the 8-month-old baby died of complications caused by the tainted milk powder.

18 arrested
Shi Guizhong, spokesman for the police in Hebei province, where Sanlu is based, said authorities were starting a 10-day campaign to focus on melamine contamination. Suppliers to the dairy companies are believed to have added the banned chemical to watered-down milk.

Police in Hebei province said they had arrested 12 more people Thursday, bringing the total to 18. Shi said six allegedly sold melamine, while the other 12 were milk suppliers accused of adding the chemical to milk.

Police also confiscated 660 pounds of suspected chemicals, including 490 pounds of melamine, he said. An additional 87 people were summoned for questioning and 28 people have been detained, according to Shijiazhuang Vice Mayor Zhang Meizhi.

One suspect, surnamed Su, told police that from February 2007 to July 2008 he bought 200 44-pound sacks of melamine $29 each, and sold them all to milk suppliers, Shi told a news conference.

Zhang, whose predecessor has been detained, pledged that Sanlu would “turn pressure in motivation” to resolve the crisis properly.

Confusion over what's safe
Parents gathered outside Sanlu facilities in Shijiazhuang to get refunds for their purchases of tainted milk powder. The mood was calm but there was confusion as parents traded tips on what products they thought were safe.

Video: Baby milk recall spreads fear

A 30-year-old mother who gave only her surname Wang said her 1-year-old daughter seemed healthy but that she was still worried. The three major milk powder brands that she usually buys — Yili Industrial Group Co., Mengniu Dairy Co. and Sanlu — have all been recalled.

“Of course as a mother, I was really nervous,” she said. “Now we have no idea what kind of milk to give the baby. They all have problems.”

The widening crisis has raised questions about the effectiveness of tighter controls China promised after a series of food safety scares in recent years over contaminated seafood, toothpaste and ingredients for pet food.

Meanwhile, regulators in Hong Kong ordered the recall of milk products from a Chinese dairy after finding melamine in eight of 30 sample products tested.

The Hong Kong recall covers milk, yogurt, ice cream and all other products made by Yili Industrial Group Co. and distributed in Hong Kong, said Constance Chan, controller for the territory’s Food Safety Center.

In addition to the recall in Hong Kong, Singapore authorities announced they were recalling an ice cream bar made by Shanghai Yili AB Foods after melamine was found in it.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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