6,200 Chinese Babies Ill, 3 Die; 12 People Arrested in Milk Scandal (Update 3)

The Chinese government is now reporting that 6,200 babies have fallen ill from tainted formula, up from 1,200 reported yesterday. From AP:

At least three children have died and more than 1,300 others, mostly newborns, remain hospitalized with dozens suffering from acute kidney failure.

Early Thursday, authorities arrested 12 more people in connection with the scandal, said Shi Guizhong, spokesman for the Hebei provincial police. The official said that brought the overall total detained to 18.

Police also confiscated nearly 500 pounds of melamine, the industrial chemical added to milk powder that has ignited a widening food safety crisis.

Health Minister Chen Zhu said Wednesday he expected the numbers of affected babies to increase as “more and more parents take kids to the hospital.”

The New York Times reports from a hospital in Beijing on anxious parents worried and angered that they may have fed their babies tainted milk powder:

The anxiety at Children’s Hospital is just one snapshot of a scandal that has broadened every day since it became public last week. On Wednesday, Health Minister Chen Zhu reported that more than 1,300 infants had been hospitalized and that 158 had suffered acute kidney failure after being fed formula contaminated with the industrial additive melamine.

With anger rising, the State Council, China’s cabinet, pledged an overhaul of the nation’s dairy industry, and government officials tried to reassure people by issuing a statement that “most” of China’s baby formula was safe.

But public confidence seemed shaken. “What should we eat, then?” asked one person on an Internet discussion forum. “I’m furious! The milk powder is now exposed, but what about other tainted food that we don’t know about? What has the central government been doing every day?”

Reuters reports on the lack of public awareness about the benefits of breastfeeding, which has led many Chinese mothers to feed their babies milk powder. Meanwhile, government officials are eager to confirm that no tainted milk powder was distributed to the Olympics, despite the fact that some of the companies found to have distributed chemically-altered milk powder were official suppliers for the Games. The following is an exchange between an official and a journalist during a Health Ministry press conference, translated by CDT:

Government Press Conference on Status of Milk Powder Supplied to the Olympics

At 10 a.m. Wednesday September 17, 2008, China’s Health Ministry held a press conference to provide information on the tainted milk formula scandal and answer journalists’ questions. Participants included the National Sanlu Formula Scandal Leadership Small Group Director Chen Zhu, Vice-Director Li Changjiang and others.

Beijing Television Journalist: Yesterday it was officially announced that of the 22 companies have similarly tainted milk powder, included were those who were official Olympics suppliers. Bureau Director Li has guaranteed that all of the milk products supplied to the Olympics and Paralympics were safe. Please can you tell us by what specific investigation procedure was this determined? When specifically did you conduct this investigation, and on what milk products and production time? Were the Olympic milk products prior to September all safe, was there hidden danger? Thank you.

Li Changjiang: All products supplied to the Olympics and Paralympics was secure. We applied special scanning management procedures for all Olympic products. All stages of food product supplies–including milk products–was step-by-step strictly monitored by us, with no loopholes in the process. All products supplied to the Olympics were monitored from their source. Starting more than two months before the Olympics, we sent inspectors to all production factories, and strictly supervised every stage of the production process. After it was discovered that some infant formula contained melamine, we immediately tested all the products supplied to the Olympics and did not find any to contain melamine. Thank you!

Read previous reporting on this story, via CDT.

Update (9/18): A fourth baby has reportedly died from the milk powder contamination, and the mayor of Shijiazhuang has been fired for his role in the crisis. From the New York Times:

The mayor of Shijiazhuang, Ji Chuntang, was the most senior official to be fired so far in the growing milk scandal. Mr. Ji had been removed Wednesday from his post as deputy secretary of the Shijiazhuang Municipal Committee of the Communist Party, according to Xinhua, the state news agency.

[…] The latest death took place in a Mongolian area of Xinjiang, in China’s far west, Xinhua reported Thursday. Eighty-six babies in the area fell ill after drinking tainted milk.

On Thursday night, China Central Television, the main government network, reported that melamine had been found in some liquid milk from three major brands.

Mr. Ji was dismissed in the investigation of what appears to be a chain of neglect and cover-up that began with Sanlu, which is partly owned by a New Zealand company. Sanlu received complaints months ago about suspected problems in the milk, but waited until Aug. 2 to tell the Shijiazhuang city government, Hebei’s deputy governor said Wednesday. City officials waited until Sept. 9 to tell provincial officials, who did not inform the central government until the next day.

Update 2: As the New York Times story mentions, the milk contamination is now found to be much more widespread than originally thought and is affecting regular liquid milk. From Reuters:

Nearly 10 percent of milk samples from three top Chinese dairy companies was tainted with melamine, the government quality watchdog found after testing for the banned chemical that has killed four children.

A nationwide check found melamine contamination in dairy products ran wider than the tainted milk powder that has made thousands of infants ill and sparked a widening scandal.

Starbucks and KFC are potentially affected as their suppliers were found to have distributed tainted milk. While Xinhua responds by reassuring that, “Most liquid milk in China does not contain melamine,” AFP reports that “China’s tainted milk crisis widened Friday after tests found the industrial chemical melamine in liquid milk produced by three of the country’s leading dairy companies.”

Nevertheless, China’s rights lawyers have been busy fielding calls from families of sick babies and are preparing what one says may be China’s largest ever class action lawsuit. From Reuters:

One of the 73 lawyers and activists so far behind the push to help the families said on Thursday they had received nearly a thousand phone inquiries and called the campaign a breakthrough.

“The victims definitely want compensation, and if the government doesn’t come through, this could become China’s biggest ever collective legal action,” said Li Fangping, a Beijing lawyer who often represents dissidents and protesters.

“I do think this is a first. It shows Chinese people’s consciousness of the law and their rights is growing and lawyers are become more interested in helping the disadvantaged.”

Radio Australia reports that Sanlu may have known about contamination in their milk products as long as three years ago.

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