China’s latest product safety scandal — tainted milk formula blamed for killing two Chinese babies and sickening 1,200 — expanded to include more foods Tuesday, with state media reporting some formula produced by companies involved was exported.
State broadcaster CCTV reported on its evening newscast that a nationwide inspection of the 175 Chinese companies making baby milk powder showed that 22 of them had traces of the industrial chemical melamine in their products.
One company, Guangdong-based Yashili, exported its products to Bangladesh, Yemen and Myanmar, CCTV said, but added that initial testing of samples of the company’s exports turned up no trace of melamine.
In Hong Kong, food inspectors ordered a recall after melamine was found in an ice cream bar made by Shanghai Yili AB Foods. The amounts of the chemical found “would not pose major health effects from normal consumption of the bar, however, small children should not eat it,” the Center for Food Safety said in a notice posted on its Web site.
The widening scandal is an embarrassing failure for China’s product safety system, which was overhauled to restore consumer confidence and preserve export markets after a string of recalls and warnings abroad over tainted toothpaste, faulty tires and other goods.
Phony baby formula killed 12 in 2004
It is also 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 quoted the Health Ministry as saying medical agencies were prepared for the probe to uncover additional cases and were setting up a treatment system for affected infants.
The company at the heart of the food scandal, Sanlu Group Co., has apologized for the tainted milk powder, which the Health Ministry says was spiked with melamine. The company says suppliers who sold the raw milk apparently added the chemical, normally used in plastics, to make the milk appear higher in protein.
Zhang Zhenling, Sanlu’s vice president, apologized Monday but did not explain why the company took so long to inform the public about the contamination despite receiving complaints as early as March and having tests confirm the presence of the chemical in early August.
The company went public with the information after its New Zealand stakeholder told the New Zealand government, which then informed the Chinese government.
“The serious safety accident of the Sanlu formula milk powder for infants has caused severe harm to many sickened babies and their families. We feel really sad about this,” Zhang said, reading from a prepared statement.
Four men arrested
Sanlu’s General Manager Tian Wenhua was fired and dismissed from the company’s board of directors as a result of the scandal, Xinhua quoted Communist Party officials as saying in the northern city of Shijiazhuang, where the company is based.
In total, four men have been arrested in relation to the tainted milk, spokesman Shi Guizhong with the Hebei Provincial Security Department was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua News Agency on Tuesday. The newly arrested dealers were only identified by their surnames as Ma, 40, and Zhao, 43.
Earlier, police said they had arrested two brothers, surnamed Geng, who ran a milk collection center in Hebei province and are accused of watering down milk to increase volume then adding melamine, Xinhua said. They sold about three tons of contaminated milk a day, the report said.
Details of the children’s deaths show the problem appeared to have gone undetected for months. The first victim, a 5-month-old boy from the western city of Lanzhou, died May 1, ministry officials said. The second, an 8-month-old girl also from Lanzhou, died July 22.
Vice Health Minister Ma Xiaowei told reporters that 1,253 infants had been sickened — mainly after developing kidney stones — more than twice the number previously acknowledged. Of those, 913 of the infants were only slightly affected, while 340 remained hospitalized and 53 cases were considered especially severe, he said.
None of the milk powder was exported to Europe or the United States, although Sanlu is 43 percent owned by a New Zealand dairy farmers’ cooperative, Fonterra.
Fonterra, the world’s biggest milk trader, says it urged Sanlu to recall the product as early as Aug. 2. Sanlu did not order a recall until last Thursday, after the New Zealand government took up the issue with China.
Chinese officials have defended their response but blamed Sanlu Group for delays in warning the public. Officials say they were not alerted until last week.