BEIJING — The head of the Chinese agency that monitors food and product safety has resigned, state media announced Monday, pushed out by a scandal over tainted baby formula that killed four babies and sickened nearly 53,000.
The official Xinhua news agency said in a brief statement that the country's quality chief, Li Changjiang, had quit in light of the case. "Li was the highest ranking official brought down so far by the dairy product contamination scandal," it said.
The Communist Party chief of Shijiazhuang, home to the Sanlu Group which made the tainted milk powder, has also been fired, Xinhua said, the latest official to lose their job for mishandling the incident.
More than 80 percent of the nearly 13,000 children hospitalized in recent weeks were 2 years old or younger, the Health Ministry said in a statement posted on its Web site late Sunday. Four children have died and 104 of the hospitalized children are in serious condition.
Another 39,965 children received outpatient treatment at hospitals and were considered "basically recovered," the ministry said.
The Health Ministry said that most of the hospitalized were sickened by powdered milk and baby formula. It said most of the sick children consumed baby formula from one company, the Shijiazhuang Sanlu Group Co. The dairy is at the center of the scandal.
"The hospitalized children basically consumed Sanlu brand infant milk powder. No cases have been found from ingesting liquid milk," said the ministry statement.
Over the weekend, the Chinese territory of Hong Kong reported the first known illness outside
Beijing authorities also said that China's biggest producer of powdered milk had known for months that its baby formula was tainted with the industrial chemical melamine. There were complaints about infant formula sold by the Sanlu Group Co. as early as December, 2007, China Central Television reported, citing an investigation by the State Council, China's Cabinet.
"During these eight months, the company did not inform the government and did not take proper measures, therefore making the situation worse," CCTV said.
Melamine, which can cause kidney stones and kidney failure in babies, has since been found in infant formula and other milk products from 22 of China's dairy companies.
Baby formula and other milk products have been pulled from stores around the country and Chinese goods including liquid milk, instant coffee mix and milk-based candy have been banned around Asia.
Hong Kong parents took their children for health checkups Monday after the government announced that a 3-year-old local girl who drank contaminated Chinese milk had been diagnosed with a kidney stone. She was discharged from the hospital, the Hong Kong government said.
Stricter monitoring urged
The resignation of Changjiang, who headed the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine since 2001, comes a year after he and the government promised to overhaul the system.
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New regulations and procedures were introduced in an attempt to restore consumer confidence and preserve export markets after a string of recalls and warnings abroad over tainted toothpaste, faulty tires and other goods.
Yet the latest crisis indicates problems were still slipping through the cracks.
On Monday, the World Health Organization urged stricter monitoring of the industry.
Sanlu and several other leading companies found to have produced tainted milk had been given inspection-free status by China's product quality watchdog.
That privilege has since been rescinded, but WHO China representative Hans Troedsson stressed it was only a first step and that quality issues can crop up at any point in the supply chain, from the farm to the store.
"It's clearly something that is not acceptable and needs to be rectified and corrected," he said.
The number of sick children reported by the government jumped Sunday from 6,200 to nearly 53,000.
More than 80 percent of the 12,892 children hospitalized in recent weeks were 2 years old or younger, the Health Ministry said. It said 104 were in serious condition.
Another 39,965 children received outpatient treatment and were considered "basically recovered," the ministry said.
Four babies' deaths have been blamed on tainted milk powder.
The ministry did not explain the sudden increase in the number of cases but it suggested health officials were combing through hospital records from May through August to trace the origins of the contamination. The deaths of the infants linked to tainted baby formula occurred in those months, the Health Ministry said.
WHO was having discussions with Chinese officials on how to strengthen its food quality system, Troedsson said. Local authorities need increased training to create a "more robust reporting system," he said.
"It is important to know if information was withheld, where and why it was withheld," he said. "Was it ignorance by provincial authorities or was it that they neglected to report it? Because if it was ignorance there is a need to have much better training and education ... if it is neglect then it is of course more serious."
Investigators say some raw milk suppliers, in hopes of making more profit, may have watered down their milk to increase volume and then added melamine, which is high in nitrogen and artificially appears to boost protein content.
The official Xinhua News Agency said Li stepped down with the approval of China's Cabinet. Wang Yong replaced Li as the director of the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine.
Traces found in milk-based candy
Singapore said Sunday that it had found traces of melamine in another Chinese-made dairy product, milk-based White Rabbit brand candy.
"Retailers and importers have been instructed to recall these products and withhold them from sale," Singapore's Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority said in a statement.
In the two weeks since the government first acknowledged the contamination, it has issued recalls for dairy products from 22 companies after tests turned up traces of melamine.
Melamine is used in making plastics and is high in nitrogen, which registers as protein in tests of milk. Though health experts believe ingesting minute amounts poses no danger, melamine can cause kidney stones, which can lead to kidney failure. Infants are particularly vulnerable.
Some of the farmers who sell milk to Chinese food companies are thought to have used melamine to disguise watered-down milk and fatten profit margins hurt by rising costs for feed, fuel and labor.
In Hong Kong, parents of the 3-year-old girl took her for a checkup because she had been drinking milk made by Chinese dairy Yili Industrial Group Co. every day for the past 15 months. Yili was among the 22 companies whose products were recalled for melamine contamination.
Yili said in a statement late Sunday that it will pay for the girl's medical expenses if it is confirmed her illness was caused by the company's contaminated milk.
The ministry did not say why the number of cases had suddenly doubled from 6,200 on Saturday, but it suggested that health officials were combing through hospital records from May through August to trace the origins of the contamination. The deaths of three infants linked to tainted infant formula occurred in those months.
The Chinese government has launched high-profile efforts to show it is on top of the crisis, with Premier Wen Jiabao appearing on state-run television Sunday to say diary companies had to show more "social responsibility."
Wen was shown visiting a Beijing hospital where children were having health checks. He also stopped at a supermarket to look at dairy products.
"The government will put more efforts into food security, taking the incident as a warning," Wen said.
"What we are trying to do is to ensure no such event happens in future, by punishing those responsible leaders as well as enterprises. None of those companies lacking professional ethics or social morals will be let off," Wen said, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.
Since the problem of tainted milk products became public knowledge less than two weeks ago, the crisis has spread to include almost all of China's biggest dairy companies. Their products have been pulled from stores around the country, and in other places such as the self-governing Chinese territories of Hong Kong and Macau. Starbucks stopped offering milk in its 300 outlets in China.
Hong Kong's two main supermarket chains said Sunday they were recalling milk powder made by Swiss manufacturer Nestle after a newspaper reported it contains melamine.
Spokeswomen for both companies said they acted as a precaution after Hong Kong's Apple Daily reported Sunday that tests it commissioned showed that Nestle milk powder made in China's northeastern Heilongjiang province contained melamine.
On Sunday, the Hong Kong government said its tests found small amounts of melamine in Nestle's Chinese-made Dairy Farm brand milk for catering use and ordered the product recalled.
Company says no contamination
Nestle said in a statement late Sunday that it is "confident" that none of its Chinese-made products are made with milk contaminated with melamine.
The Swiss manufacturer said it "has the same stringent quality control system in place in its factories in China as in any other part of the world."
Taiwanese company King Car Co. announced it has recalled packs of its Mr. Brown instant coffee and milk tea containing contaminated milk powder imported from China.
Japan and Singapore have recalled Chinese-made dairy products, and the governments of Malaysia and Brunei announced bans on milk products from China even though neither country currently imports Chinese dairy items.
The concern is because melamine has been found not only in powdered milk — used to make baby formula and other products — but also in liquid milk sold by China's biggest dairies.
Food and product safety scandals have been a feature of Chinese life. Only last year, the government promised to overhaul inspection procedures after exports of medicines, toys, pet food ingredients and other products killed and sickened people and pets in North and South America.
The chemical in the dangerous pet food was the same as in the milk scandal — melamine.
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