Milk sickens 52,000 Chinese children
Scandal spreads to Hong Kong, officials say
BEIJING - The number of children in China sickened by dairy products tainted with the banned industrial chemical melamine has jumped to about 52,000, the government said yesterday as it vowed to crack down on those responsible for one of the country's worst food safety scandals.
More than 80 percent of the 12,892 children hospitalized in recent weeks were 2 years old or younger, the Health Ministry said in a statement posted on its website. Four children have died and 104 of the hospitalized children are in serious condition.
Another 39,965 children received outpatient treatment at hospitals and were considered "basically recovered," the ministry said.
The ministry said most of the children sickened consumed infant formula from one company, the Shijiazhuang Sanlu Group Co.
During the weekend, the Chinese territory of Hong Kong reported the first known illness outside mainland China - a 3-year-old girl who developed kidney stones after drinking Chinese dairy products. She was discharged from the hospital, the Hong Kong government said.
In the two weeks since the government first acknowledged the contamination, it has issued recalls for dairy products from 22 companies after tests turned up traces of melamine. The Health Ministry said that most of the hospitalized were sickened by powdered milk and formula.
"The hospitalized children basically consumed Sanlu brand infant milk powder. No cases have been found from ingesting liquid milk," said the statement.
Melamine is used in making plastics and is high in nitrogen, which registers as protein in tests of milk. Though health specialists believe ingesting minute amounts poses no danger, melamine can cause kidney stones, which can lead to kidney failure. Infants are particularly vulnerable.
Some of the farmers who sell milk to Chinese food companies are thought to have used melamine to disguise watered-down milk and fatten profit margins hurt by rising costs for feed, fuel, and labor.
The ministry did not say why the number of hospitalized cases had suddenly doubled from 6,200 on Saturday, but it suggested that health officials were combing through hospital records from May through August to trace the origins of the contamination. The deaths of three infants linked to tainted infant formula occurred in those months, the statement said.
In Hong Kong, parents of the 3-year-old girl took her for a checkup because she had been drinking milk made by Chinese dairy Yili Industrial Group Co. every day for the past 15 months. Yili was among the 22 companies whose products were recalled for melamine contamination.
The Chinese government has launched high-profile efforts to show it is on top of the crisis, with Premier Wen Jiabao appearing on state-run television yesterday to say dairy companies had to show more "social responsibility."
Wen was shown visiting a Beijing hospital where children were having health checks. "What we need to do now is to ensure that nothing like this happens in the future, not only in dairy products but in all food," Wen said.
Since the problem of tainted milk products became public knowledge less than two weeks ago, the crisis has spread to include almost all of China's biggest dairy companies. Their products have been pulled from stores around the country, and in other places such as the self-governing Chinese territories of Hong Kong and Macau.
Hong Kong's two main supermarket chains said yesterday they were recalling milk powder made by Swiss manufacturer
Spokeswomen for both companies said they acted as a precaution after Hong Kong's Apple Daily reported yesterday that tests it commissioned showed that Nestle milk powder made in China's northeastern Heilongjiang province contained melamine. Nestle's Hong Kong office did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.