China Detains 19 as Toxic Formula Sickens Hundreds of Infants

SHANGHAI – China said Saturday that 19 people had been detained by the police as part of an investigation into how baby formula had become contaminated with an industrial chemical. The formula is implicated in the death of one infant, and at least 432 others have been afflicted with kidney problems.

The government also said Saturday that the Sanlu Group, China’s biggest producer of milk powder formula, had first received complaints about its powder in March and had recalled some products but delayed reporting the problems to the government or the public.

Last week, the Sanlu Group recalled 700 tons of powdered formula, and on Saturday the government said the company had been ordered to stop producing and selling powdered formula.

The provincial government of Hebei, where Sanlu is based, ordered on Saturday that Sanlu shut down all of its milk powder production, according to the official Xinhua news agency.

Beijing authorities also formally sent notice of Sanlu’s difficulties to the government of Taiwan, where stores have already been removing the product from shelves. Mainland China continues to insist that none of the powder was sold to any other overseas markets.

In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration said that no infant formula from China had been approved for import.

Beijing’s highest government agencies ordered a “first-class national food emergency response” on Saturday, calling for a thorough investigation into the causes of the contamination and offering aid to infants suffering from kidney stones.

“This is a severe food safety accident,” Gao Qiang, the vice minister of health, said at a news conference on Saturday.

The government said that a preliminary investigation had determined that the infant formula had been contaminated by melamine, an industrial chemical that is used in some plastics. The government said it thought the melamine had been intentionally added to the powder to make it seem to have more protein.

Last year, the same chemical was found in animal feed from China that was then sold to pet food makers in the United States, sickening hundreds of cats and dogs. This touched off an international trade dispute and questions about the safety of products from China.

In interviews with melamine producers and sellers last year, several acknowledged that melamine was commonly used to artificially raise the protein count in a variety of foods, fish feeds and even dairy products.

Melamine, which can be created from coal, is high in nitrogen and for decades has been used by farmers to bolster protein counts in food and feed. Food safety officials in Beijing said Saturday that dairy producers could have used cheap melamine filler to make the infant formula powder seem far richer.

Last year, however, Beijing insisted that its food supply was largely safe. The government also started a nationwide campaign to root out food and product safety problems. It even executed the head of the food and drug administration after he had been found guilty of dereliction of duty.

By DAVID BARBOZA
Published: September 15, 2008

Source: The New York Times

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