China's food safety officials have once again come under intense scrutiny this week as the number of infants sickened by a batch of tainted milk powder expands daily. On September 17, Chinese Health Ministry authorities announced that over 6200 babies had fallen ill, many developing kidney stones, from drinking milk made from toxic powder. At least three have died, and more than 50 remain in serious condition. Officials have said the number of victims could climb, the China Daily reported.
Chinese authorities say the milk powder, produced by Chinese dairy giant Sanlu Group, was contaminated with melamine, a chemical used in making plastics. Melamine has been illegally added to food products in China to boost their apparent protein content, including a widely publicized case last year of contaminated pet food that got exported around the world. New Zealand dairy cooperative Fonterra, which holds a 43% share in Sanlu, said it knew in August that the milk powder was tainted, but Chinese authorities held off on announcing a public recall. Fonterra chief executive Andrew Ferrier said that Sanlu's milk supply may have been sabotaged, and the company did not come forward with the information weeks earlier because it was waiting for the recall process to move through the Chinese system. "I can look myself in the mirror and say that Fonterra acted absolutely responsibly," he told reporters in a video press conference broadcast from Singapore.
On September 11, Sanlu announced a recall of all of its milk powder products made before Aug. 6. Since then, Parents have been lining up at shops around the country to return the company's products. "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," Sanlu vice president Zhang Zhenling told reporters on Sept. 15. He bowed in apology, but offered no explanation as to why the company waited until September to launch a recall when parents began raising questions about Sanlu's milk powder in March.
The Health Ministry announced a nationwide investigation into how the milk powder was contaminated on September 12. Police in central Hebei province have detained 22 people and arrested four, including two brothers who ran a milk collection station. They have been accused of watering down the milk they purchased from local farmers and adding melamine to conceal the dilution, the state-run Xinhua News Service reported.
But the parents of sickened babies are demanding a greater response. "Sanlu is a big company and we trusted their products. We never dreamed that they would sell something so poisonous," says a mother in Xuzhou, a town in the eastern province of Jiangsu. Her 21-month-old son, who drank Sanlu powdered milk since birth, was just diagnosed with kidney stones. "What angers me the most is that Sanlu had known about it for so long," says the mother, who would only give her surname Zeng. "When I called Sanlu, they told me, 'The country will take care of it.'"
A group of lawyers situated around China has agreed to represent parents who are now trying to win compensation from Sanlu. They say the legal responsibility likely extends beyond the milk producers. "The [government's] quality control departments are probably responsible for the tragedy. It's unlikely that the whole thing consists of an independent crime committed by the dairy farmers", says Li Fangping, one of the Beijing-based lawyers who will be representing the parent group. "The poisonous milk powder was allowed in the market for so long and the scale of consequences is huge."
The Sanlu scandal has revived longstanding concerns about the safety of Chinese products. In 2004, 13 babies in eastern China died after they were fed milk made with powder that contained little nutritional value. That incident, know as the "big headed babies" scandal because the malnourished children developed swollen heads, touched off domestic demands for greater scrutiny of Chinese food products. Last year, the food supply chain became an international concern when a series of faulty export products were uncovered including fish contaminated with banned drugs, toothpaste and cough syrup made with toxic chemicals and lead paint used on toys. In March and April of 2007, Melamine emerged as the chief suspect in the poisoning of thousands of dogs and cats in the U.S. that were fed pet food made from Chinese ingredients. China responded by banning the substance for use in animal feed, but its reappearance in milk powder is a painful reminder just how far China still has to go to make its food supply safe.