China seeks public trust amid tainted milk scandal
Government confronts crisis in flurry of action
BEIJING - China sought yesterday to shore up public confidence weakened by a milk safety scandal, with the president scolding officials for negligence and government agencies promising adequate supplies of uncontaminated milk.
The flurry of action is occurring as the government confronts one of the worst food safety crises in years. Many leading brands of powdered and liquid milk and other dairy products have been pulled from store shelves after infant formula contaminated with the industrial chemical melamine sickened more than 6,200 children and left four dead.
In a measure of the scandal's scope, the Ministry of Health ordered all 31 provinces and major cities nationwide to set up separate 24-hour crisis hot lines to handle the influx of calls and help arrange care for the sick.
The order followed a barrage of instructions late Friday from the State Council, China's Cabinet, requiring hospitals to provide free medical care.
To further calm public jitters, the top economic agencies promised to monitor markets for supply disruptions and for any price-gouging in sales of powdered milk, a staple in rural China.
"Market supplies of powdered milk not tainted with melamine are sufficient," the Xinhua News Agency quoted the Commerce Ministry as saying.
State-run newspapers and national China Central Television ran lists of brands and products that were cleared of safety violations and deemed safe. In Beijing and Shanghai, grocery stores where dairy sections were emptied by recalls Friday displayed thinly stocked shelves of milk by yesterday afternoon, mostly imported or from the China operations of Nestlé SA and other foreign-owned dairies.
The apparently widespread contamination has rapidly become a political headache for a Communist government that hoped to be basking in praise for last month's successful Beijing Olympics. Instead, the government is coping with an apparent coverup by local officials and being forced to rebuild public trust.
"Some officials have ignored public opinion and turned a blind eye to people's hardships, even on major problems that affect people's lives and safety," President Hu Jintao said in a speech Friday to senior Communist Party members. "We must learn a painful lesson."
Though Hu did not directly mention the contaminated milk - and the comment was but a small part of largely dry, wide-ranging policy speech - the quote was prominently reported by state media.
Tainted, substandard food and medicines have plagued China for years as companies freed by free-market reforms and lax government oversight rushed to meet swelling demand created by rising living standards. Last year, the government promised to overhaul safety regimes after medicines, toys, and pet foods killed and sickened people and pets in North and South America and other export markets.
Yesterday, Japan joined Singapore and Chinese-ruled Hong Kong in recalling Chinese-made dairy products. The Marudai Food Co. issued a recall of cream buns, pork buns, and three other products as a precaution because they were made by its Chinese subsidiary using milk from Chinese dairy giant Yili Industrial Group Co., which sold tainted products.
Friesland Foods, a Dutch dairy company, said yesterday that it is recalling all of its plastic-bottled milk in Hong Kong and Macau. The recall of Dutch Lady-brand milk occurred a day after Singapore authorities found the industrial chemical melamine in the brand's strawberry milk manufactured in China.
Friesland Foods Hong Kong said it ordered the recall "as a measure of precaution," even though local tests had shown its dairy products were free of melamine.
Yet the tainted milk is chiefly a domestic scandal in China with broad dimensions, striking products nationwide and endangering children. Many families are allowed to have only one child under strict family planning limits.
Though health specialists believe that ingesting minute amounts poses no danger, melamine can cause kidney stones, which can lead to kidney failure.
Infants are particularly vulnerable.