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Chinese imports banned amid milk scandal

More than a dozen countries — from Indonesia to Colombia — have banned or recalled Chinese dairy products amid fears over a widening tainted milk scandal that has killed four Chinese babies and sickened thousands of others.
/ Source: The Associated Press

An industrial chemical that made its way into China’s dairy supplies and that authorities blame in the death of four babies has turned up in numerous Chinese-made exports abroad — from candies to yogurt to rice balls.

British supermarket chain Tesco removed Chinese-made White Rabbit Creamy Candies off its shelves as a precaution amid reports that samples of the milk candy in Singapore and New Zealand had tested positive for melamine — an industrial chemical used to make plastics and fertilizer.

Chinese baby formula tainted with the chemical has been blamed for the deaths of four infants and the illnesses of 53,000 others in China. Health experts say ingesting a small amount of the chemical poses no danger, but melamine can cause kidney stones and lead to kidney failure. Infants are particularly vulnerable.

More than a dozen countries have banned or recalled Chinese dairy products — the latest was France which does not import Chinese dairy products but has halted imports of Chinese biscuits, candy or other foods that could contain Chinese dairy derivatives. The government described the measure as a precaution.

Indonesia on Wednesday also distributed a list of 28 products that it said may contain tainted Chinese milk, including Oreo cookies, Snickers bars and M&M chocolate candies.

U.S. and European consumer safety officials urged Beijing to better enforce product safety standards.

Tesco said that it had withdrawn White Rabbit Creamy Candies off its shelves as a precaution. The candies had been sold in a small number of Tesco’s British stores as part of the supermarket’s ethnic range.

New Zealand’s Food Safety Authority recalled White Rabbit candies after tests showed they contained dangerously high levels of melamine and advised people not to eat them.

“This product contains sufficiently high levels of melamine which may, in some individuals, cause health problems such as kidney stones,” deputy chief executive of the authority, Sandra Daly, said in a statement.

New Zealand expected all White Rabbit sweets to be off shelves within 24 hours and was testing numerous other products for melamine contamination, said Food Safety Authority spokesman Geoff Allen.

“We are looking at a wide range of products ... primarily baby formulas as they pose the highest risk, and now we’re moving through all the other .... products that may contain adulterated milk,” he told National Radio.

Melamine has been found in infant formula and other milk products from 22 Chinese dairy companies. Suppliers trying to cut costs are believed to have added it to watered-down milk because its high nitrogen content masks the resulting protein deficiency.

Singapore’s Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority, known as AVA, recalled White Rabbit candies earlier this week and said Wednesday that more Chinese-made food had tested positive for melamine, including Dutch Lady-brand banana and honeydew flavored milk, Silang-brand potato crackers and two kinds of puffed rice balls.

The crackers and rice balls listed milk as ingredients.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said White Rabbit candy has been added to its list of products being inspected at ports of entry, but that no melamine-tainted goods from China of any sort have turned up yet. Nonetheless, some ethnic grocers started removing the popular candies from their shelves.

A woman who answered the phone at in San Francisco said the company is no longer selling White Rabbit candies. “Everything has been taken off-line,” said the woman, who would not give her name.

In New York Wednesday, China’s premier sought to ease the growing concern abroad over the growing crisis over Chinese food exports by vowing to strengthen product safety checks and meet international standards.

China needs to better enforce checks at every stage of production and step up efforts to protect consumer interests, Premier Wen Jiabao said on the sidelines of a meeting of the U.N. General Assembly.

“We want to make sure that our products and our food will not only meet the domestic and international standards, but also meet the specific requirements of the import countries,” Wen said at an event organized by American organizations.

Also Wednesday, a Chinese official issued a public apology to consumers in Taiwan as the island’s president, who won March elections on a platform of closer economic ties with the mainland, blasted Chinese milk producers.

“I condemn the mainland manufacturers that have produced fake milk and dairy creamer,” Ma Ying-jeou said.

Authorities there ordered 160 products containing Chinese milk and vegetable-based proteins off store shelves, saying the goods had to be tested before they can go back on sale.

“We feel extremely painful about the damage that the milk powder brought to people in Taiwan. Our government attaches great importance to it and is taking a series of measures to minimize the damage and influence,” said Li Weiyi, a spokesman for the State Council Taiwan Affairs Office.

Speaking in China, where U.S. and European officials were attending seminars on product safety, a U.S. official said China’s troubles with contaminated milk highlight the need for better enforcement of product safety standards in manufacturing.

“The melamine situation just underscores the message that we are trying to deliver, and that is you have to know what’s coming into your factory and what’s going out of your factory,” said Nancy Nord, acting head of the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission.

The Chinese government has been scrambling to show it is tackling the problem. In recent days, the government announced high-profile arrests and forced resignations of officials.

The dairy at the center of the scandal, Sanlu Group Co., will not be able to recover from the damage it has suffered to its reputation, its New Zealand partner said Wednesday. An investigation into the contamination found Sanlu received complaints about its infant formula as early as December 2007 and covered up the problem for months, state media reported earlier this week.

The Chinese government has taken control of Sanlu, which is 43 percent owned by New Zealand’s Fonterra Cooperative, and shut down its operations, Fonterra Chief Executive Andrew Ferrier said at a briefing. Sanlu is based in northern China’s Hebei province.

“Sanlu has been damaged very badly by this tragedy,” Ferrier told reporters as he announced Fonterra’s annual results. “The brand cannot be reconstructed.”

There was no immediate response Wednesday from Sanlu. Several calls during the day were answered by temporary workers in the company’s media department who took down questions but said it was up to senior company officials to decide whether to reply. The workers refused to give their names, which is common among Chinese employees.