BEIJING, Sept. 18, 2008 — -- A fourth baby has died in China after developing kidney stones as a result of drinking Sanlu milk powder containing the chemical melamine, used in making plastics, that was added to formula to make it appear to have more protein.
The deaths have reached across this vast country of 1.3 billion people, the latest coming in China's Xinjiang Autonomous Region.
The China Health Ministry says more than 6,000 babies were sickened after drinking the formula, and the number is likely to rise. The government has made a big push to prevent more deaths, but many questions remain unanswered and parents are angry and fearful.
The first cases of kidney stones were reported to local officials back in March.
Last week the Sanlu Group, the largest and most profitable milk powder producer in China, issued an immediate recall of milk formula made before Aug. 6, in the first publicly announced recall.
But officials in China's Health Ministry have said Sanlu knew about the problem six weeks earlier and delayed warning the public. And as early as July, a local TV channel in Hunan reported an unusually high number of infant kidney stone patients.
Why did Sanlu wait to tell the public that thousands of tons of their product were tainted and dangerous to children? The company has issued an apology and the company president has been fired, but Sanlu has yet to answer that question.
China's Internet chat rooms are alive with angry parents airing grievances and demanding answers. Some critics have accused the company of waiting until after the Olympics were over so as not to embarrass itself and the country, thereby putting thousands of young lives at risk.
The central government in China says it was not informed of the problem until last week.
One allegation is that local government officials kept quiet about it, in some cases taking the poisonous powder off supermarket shelves, but not publicly warning parents who may have already been feeding their children the formula.
Sanlu's partner company in New Zealand, Fonterra, said it had pressed for the recall. New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark said Fonterra tried "for weeks to get official recall and the local authorities in China would not do it." Finally, "New Zealand blew the whistle in Beijing," and a "very heavy hand then descended on the local authorities."
Widespread Publicity, Numerous Arrests
Since the recall became public, the central government has actively publicized the warnings surrounding the tainted milk, holding regular press conferences and posting the story on the front pages of state-run newspapers.
To date, 18 suspects have been arrested. Six have been charged with selling the melamine, and 12 others have been charged for adding the melamine to milk and then selling the tainted milk powder to Sanlu.
One suspect reportedly said that his pure milk was not good enough and he heard that melamine would make the quality appear better, so he added it and then sold it.
Reports in China's state-run media say the suspects could face the death penalty if convicted.
At the Sanlu headquarters in Shijiazhuang, angry parents came to return the recalled formula and demand answers. The mayor of the city has resigned over the scandal, along with four other officials.
The Health Ministry also launched a full-scale testing of baby formula. The results were shocking.
Sixty-nine batches of milk powder were found to contain melamine, and not just in Sanlu, but in 22 brands of milk powder (20 percent of all brands) including China's two largest milk powder producers and their two biggest dairies.
There is concern that some of the tainted formula may have been exported to Myanmar, Bangladesh, Yemen, Gambon and Burundi, and Hong Kong has recalled a popular brand of frozen yogurt popsicle that contains melamine.
The FDA in the United States issued an alert that some of the tainted powder could have been illegally imported to America, but after visits to hundreds of specialty groceries, they have yet to find any. Perhaps this provides some relief for American parents, but Chinese parents now have no idea what is safe to feed their children.
A History of Product Quality Issues
The Chinese government has set up makeshift clinics around the country, where parents can take their children for tests and treatment, free of charge. The Health Minister has dispatched 5,000 inspectors to further test milk powder, the first mandated check for toxic chemicals in baby formula.
But a Washington Post analysis found that nine of the 22 brands that contained melamine were exempt from inspections.
And some of wondered why were these checks were not already in place.
It is a familiar question which China has yet to answer. This is not the first time the country has faced deadly product quality scandals. Four years ago, a milk powder brand was found to have sold formula that had little or no nutritional value. This led to deaths of 12 infants in the poorest province of China and sickened many more.
The traditional way in China is to pick the culprit and lay down the law. It has been less than a year since the former head of China's State Food and Drug Administration was convicted and then executed for failing to do his job to prevent unsafe drugs from entering the marketplace.
This was after several other scandals embarrassed the Chinese government and the "Made in China" label.
Last year, pet food that was also tainted with melamine was exported to the United States and killed dozens of pets. Shortly after that, Chinese toys were found to contain lead and were recalled from the United States. There were also problems with tainted toothpaste and toxic fish, after which China promised to improve testing and safety procedures.
There is no doubt that heads will roll over this. But the bigger question, critics charge, is what safeguards will be put in place to ensure that these deadly problems will be prevented in the future?