Dozens of infants in eastern China have died from malnutrition from drinking fake milk formula with virtually no nutritional value, state media reported Tuesday.
The widely reported deaths prompted demands from Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao for a “thorough investigation and severe punishment” of the formula’s manufacturers, according to the Web site of the official China Daily and other media.
The State Food and Drug Administration sent an investigation team to the impoverished inland province of Anhui on Monday to trace the origin of the formula and find those responsible, the reports said.
Up to 200 babies who were fed the formula developed what doctors called “big head disease,” causing the infants’ heads to grow abnormally large while their bodies wasted away. Some babies died within three days of being fed the formula, while others were hospitalized after parents discovered their children were sick.
The reports said that from April last year, about 50 to 60 infants died from malnutrition after being fed the formula. That number could rise once investigations are completed, the reports said.
Rampant piracy of products
The government’s tough action underscores its sensitivity over the rampant — and sometimes dangerous — piracy of products, from brake pads to alcohol to medicine. Chinese with little money and understanding of the risks are the most common victims.
The fake formula was purchased from shops in Fuyang, a city in Anhui where farmers scrape by on incomes of about $240 a year.
In some formula the protein accounted for a mere one-hundredth of the total amount, or about one-eighteenth of the standard content, said a specialist with the Fuyang Health Department’s Food Supervision Bureau. Important minerals such as iron and zinc were completely missing, said the specialist, who declined to give her name.
She said the cheats had taken advantage of rural consumers’ naivete about health and consumer issues.
“Rural people are very vulnerable. They don’t ask for receipts, don’t suspect the authenticity of products and are more liable to be cheated,” she said.
Approval seals and other documentation on packaging was usually false, she said. Letters to manufacturers were returned because they invented addresses listed on packaging, she said.
Local officials who raided markets in Fuyang over the weekend seized thousands of bags of suspect formula, including products without health board approval stamps or those that had passed their use-by date. Most listed factory addresses far from Anhui, reports said.
Inspectors recorded at least three dozen different brands of fake formula, the reports said. One, Aumeng Brand, purportedly from the northeastern province of Heilongjiang, sold for just $1 a bag, but contained just one-sixth the standard protein content, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.