Tainted milk problem hits Japanese company

September 26, 2008 9:52:50 AM PDT
China's scandal over milk and other foods tainted with melamine spread Friday as Japan and Hong Kong said they detected the industrial chemical in Chinese-made products. Taiwan reported three young children with kidney stones in the island's first cases possibly linked to the crisis.Powdered baby formula laced with the banned industrial chemical melamine has been blamed in the illnesses of some 54,000 children and the deaths of four infants in China. But the World Health Organization said it did not expect the number of victims to grow dramatically.

"I think we will see some more cases, but not the high number like so far," said WHO China representative Hans Troedsson. "I think the recall and more thorough investigation and testing are now starting to eliminate some of these contaminated products from coming out to the public."

But another WHO official, Peter Ben Embarek, a senior scientist with the organization's department of food safety in Geneva, said China was dragging its feet in reforming its food safety system.

He said this latest crisis showed "symptoms of a system that is not performing efficiently. We all are aware of that, the Chinese authorities are aware of that, and they have recognized that, not yesterday, not the day before, but already many years ago."

Embarek said the WHO has been working with the Chinese authorities since 2001 but that much more needed to be done.

"It takes time, as all reform, all work of this kind takes time," he said. "But it's not going fast enough. That is clear."

The list of problematic products grew with the Hong Kong government saying Friday it found traces of melamine in Heinz DHA+AA vegetable formula baby cereal and in steamed potato wasabi crackers produced by Silang House. Both products were made in mainland China.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based Heinz ordered a recall of the baby cereal as a precaution following the Hong Kong government's announcement, it said in a statement on its Web site.

The government in the Chinese territory of Macau said late Thursday it had found melamine levels 24 times the safety limit in chocolate-filled Koala's March cookies made by Lotte China Foods Co. The company is a member of Tokyo-based conglomerate Lotte Group.

An official at Lotte (China) Investment Co. Ltd. in Shanghai said Friday previous inspections had not shown any problems.

"But now that it tested positive in Macau, we find it necessary to do the inspections all over again," said Guo Hongming, a legal assistant in the Lotte Shanghai's corporate planning department.

Lotte spokeswoman Ruka Mizuno in Tokyo said products sold in Japan are not made with Chinese dairy ingredients.

Three Taiwanese children - two 3-year-old girls and a one-year-old boy - who had been consuming Chinese milk formula were found to have kidney stones. One of the girls' mother also has kidney stones, said Liu Yi-lien, health chief of Ilan County in eastern Taiwan.

"They have all consumed Chinese milk, but more tests are needed to establish the link to their kidney stones," Liu said.

Pizza Hut in Taiwan chains said Friday it was halting the supply of cheese powder to its restaurants because the powder was found to be contaminated by melamine.

Wu Yu-ping, an official with Pizza Hut in Taiwan, said the tainted cheese was supplied by Taiwan's Kaiyuan Company, but its source is not known.

Five other children have become ill from consuming melamine-tainted products in the Chinese territories of Hong Kong and Macau.

On Thursday, the European Union banned imports of baby food containing Chinese milk. The move by the 27-nation EU adds to the growing list of countries that have banned or recalled Chinese dairy products because of the contamination.

Health experts say ingesting a small amount of melamine poses no danger, but in larger doses, the chemical - used to make plastics and fertilizer - can cause kidney stones and lead to kidney failure. Infants are particularly vulnerable.

Hundreds of international food companies have set up operations in China in recent years, exposing them to the country's notorious product safety problems. Melamine-tainted products have turned up in an increasing number of Chinese-made exports abroad - from candies to yogurt to rice balls.

Only some types of milk powder and milk had been recalled in mainland China so far. But the maker of one of China's most popular candies said Friday it had halted sales because of suspected melamine contamination. White Rabbit brand creamy candies have already been pulled from shelves around Asia and in Britain.

"It's a tragedy for the Chinese food industry and a big lesson for us as it ruined the time-honored brand," Ge Junjie, a vice president Bright Foods (Group) Co. Ltd., was quoted as saying by the Shanghai Daily.

Bright Foods' subsidiary Guan Sheng Yuan Co. produces White Rabbit.

Ge was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua News Agency on Friday that the company was waiting for test results from the Shanghai Entry-Exit Inspection and Quarantine Bureau.

"We decided to halt all sales of White Rabbit candy, although the test results have not yet come out," Ge said.

Concern about White Rabbit candies has also spread to South America, where Surinamese health authorities ordered food markets to stop selling it as a precautionary measure. White Rabbit candies are widely available in Suriname, where people of Chinese heritage make up roughly 8 percent of the population.