Recalls continue as milk scandal widens

Nearly 12% of milk powder products in China have been found to contain traces of melamine, according to Chinese authorities.

The milk scare has so far killed four babies and made 53,000 others ill.

The Anglo-Dutch company Unilever became the latest big-name brand to recall Chinese products, taking Lipton milk tea powder off shelves in Hong Kong and Macau after tests showed them to be contaminated with melamine.

Yesterday Heinz decided to stop buying Chinese milk in the wake of the scandal, saying it made a ”strategic decision to switch our milk supply in China and Hong Kong to non-Chinese sources.”

Hong Kong’s food safety agency, the Centre for Food Safety, also said its tests had found melamine in a Japanese brand’s Chinese-made cheesecake Lotte Cream Cheese Cake manufactured by Japan’s Lotte China Foods Co.

Earlier, Hong Kong and Macau authorities detected excessive melamine in Lotte’s popular Koala’s March chocolate and strawberry cream cookies.

According to journalists, rights groups and media critics, China knew about the contamination of milk products months ago but covered the scandal up to prevent it tarnishing the Beijing Olympics.

The crisis broke in mid-September, but an editor at a respected southern China newspaper said that as early as July one of his reporters was investigating how milk powder might have been to blame for children developing kidney stones and falling seriously sick.

Southern Weekend news editor Fu Jianfeng said on his blog, ”as a news editor, I was deeply concerned because I sensed that this was going to be a huge public health disaster.

”But I could not send any reporters out to investigate. Therefore, I harboured a deep sense of guilt and defeat at the time.”

China’s leading internet search engine, Baidu, said yesterday a public relations company acting for milk producer Sanlu twice asked it to screen out negative news about the contaminated milk scandal.

But Baidu rejected the requests when they came last month, a company spokeswoman said in Beijing yesterday. She was responding to New Zealand and Australian news reports at the weekend suggesting Sanlu had agreed to buy $640,000 of advertising with Baidu in return for stifling the negative publicity.

Production at Sanlu, 43% owned by New Zealand dairy giant Fonterra, has been shut down after its formula was found to have had melamine added to cover up low protein levels in watered down milk.

Melamine is normally used in making plastic, but can make watered-down milk look richer in protein than is actually the case.

As China marked its national day, President Hu Jintao said lessons must be learnt from the scandal.

”Food safety is directly linked to the well-being of the broad masses and the competence of a company,” Hu said during a tour of dairy companies in eastern China’s Anhui province.

”Chinese companies should learn from the lessons of the Sanlu tainted milk powder incident,” he said.

He urged companies to strengthen management and food safety checks and make sure their products were safe for consumers.

Since the scandal erupted, an increasing number of dairy products have been found to contain melamine.

The nation’s top product safety watchdog, the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, said a sweeping nationwide check found melamine in 31 milk powder products, representing 11.7% of a total of 265 products tested.

All had been produced before September 14 and insisted products made after that date were safe.

They came from 20 different companies, including Sanlu Group and several of its partners. The agency said it had checked 154 companies, representing more than 70% of the entire milk powder market. AFP/NZPA

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