China syndromeEU bans baby food with Chinese milk

Published 26 September 2008

Twenty-two Chinese dairies used industrial additive melamine in their products; 54,000 Chinese babies were sickened, 4 died, and more than 10,000 are still hospitalized; 27-nation EU bans baby food with Chinese milk

More trouble for the Chinese dairy industry. Yesterday the European Union banned imports of baby food containing Chinese milk as tainted dairy products linked to the deaths of four babies turned up in candy and other Chinese-made goods that were quickly pulled from stores worldwide.

The Guardian Angela Balakrishnan writes that the 27-nation EU adds to the growing list of countries which have banned or recalled Chinese dairy products. In addition to the ban, the European Commission called for tighter checks on other Chinese food imports. Chinese baby formula tainted with melamine has been blamed for the deaths of four infants in China and the illnesses of 54,000 babies there. More than 10,000 babies remain hospitalized. Health experts say ingesting a small amount of the chemical poses no danger, but melamine — used to make plastics and fertilizer — can cause kidney stones and lead to kidney failure. Infants are particularly vulnerable.

All imports of products containing more than 50 percent of milk powder will have to be tested under the new rules due to come into force Friday after talks among the EU’s member nations. EU food safety experts said they have found only a limited risk in Europe from food imports from China, but the European Commission says it is acting as a precaution in the face of the growing health scare.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF, the UN Children’s Fund, issued a joint statement yesterday expressing concern about the widening crisis. “Whilst any attempt to deceive the public in the area of food production and marketing is unacceptable, deliberate contamination of foods intended for consumption by vulnerable infants and young children is particularly deplorable,” the statement said.

Melamine has been found in infant formula and other milk products from twenty-two 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. “We also expect that following the investigation and in the context of the Chinese government’s increasing attention to food safety, better regulation of foods for infants and young children will be enforced,” the UN statement said.

The rest of the statement called for more awareness of the benefits of breastfeeding. That has become less common in recent years in China as busy mothers switched to powdered baby formula. Melamine-tainted products have also turned up in an increasing number of Chinese-made exports abroad — from candies to yogurt to rice balls.

In China, the problem has spread to a popular brand of candy, with authorities pulling White Rabbit candy from shelves in Shanghai and the southern province of Hainan. White Rabbit, which has been recalled already in Singapore, Britain, Australia, and New Zealand, was found to contain “unsatisfactory” levels of melamine — more than six times the legal limit — in a test of 67 dairy products, according to the Hong Kong government’s Center for Food Safety.

The candy is still on sale in some stores in Beijing, and there has been no public announcement of a nationwide recall from China’s safety watchdog. A woman who works at the propaganda department of the quality body, the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, said that she did not know of White Rabbit candy being recalled in China. She did not give her name, as is common with officials in China.

The watchdog issued a recall list on 16 September for sixty-nine batches of milk powder made by twenty-two companies. The only other recall list was on 19 September for liquid milk.

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said China would like to work with food safety authorities of other countries over concerns about China’s dairy products, and China’s state broadcaster CCTV said Thursday there have been no positive tests of melamine on major brands of milk, yogurt and other liquid dairy products after 14 September. The Chinese Ministry of Agriculture said that twenty-nine provincial areas nationwide had set up special working groups to regulate the dairy product market.

The Shanghai government has urged a subsidiary of Bright Food Group to stop the sale of White Rabbit candy — one of the best-known candies in China — and pull them off the shelves, and to recall those for export that are likely to have problems, it said. The subsidiary, Guan Sheng Yuan, has been making White Rabbit candies for almost fifty years, with exports to Southeast Asia and Chinese communities overseas. “The inspection is ongoing and we are waiting for the results,” Xu Yongxin, a public affairs official for Bright Food Group Co, which makes the candy, said.