Chinese Parents Question Tainted Milk Co.

A child, suffering from problems related to consuming tainted milk formula, rests at a hospital in Shijiazhuang, northern China's Hebei province, Sept. 18, 2008. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)
AP
Hundreds of Chinese parents, some cradling infants, converged on the company at the heart of the tainted baby formula scandal Thursday, demanding refunds and asking what they can safely feed their children.

Thousands of others filled hospitals, many hovering over sons and daughters hooked to IVs after drinking milk powder tainted with melamine, a toxic industrial chemical that can cause kidney stones and lead to kidney failure.

The scandal highlights the changing family dynamics and economic growth in China. A generation ago, women had little choice besides breast-feeding. Now, supermarkets are filled with dozens of brands of baby formula, marketed to women who work outside the home after they give birth.

Yao Haoge, an 11-month-old baby with two large kidney stones, had been drinking Sanlu formula since she was born because both of her parents work. They had been puzzled by their little girl's fevers and dark urine, but it never occurred to them that she had kidney stones brought on by her formula.

Now, like many of the babies at the Peace Hospital in Shijiazhuang, Haoge has an IV drip hooked into a vein in her head.

"We don't make much money, but we wanted to buy good milk powder," said her father, Yao Weiguan, a day-laborer from a small town an hour's train ride from Shijiazhuang.

"We thought it was good and now it's given us problems. And we spent quite a bit of money too."

Baby milk powder laced with melamine, used in plastics and fertilizers, has been blamed in the deaths of four babies. More than 6,000 others have been sickened. Some 1,300 babies, mostly newborns, remain hospitalized, with 158 suffering from acute kidney failure.

On Friday, China's quality watchdog reported that the tainted product crisis has extended to liquid milk. A report posted on the agency's Web site said tests show nearly 10 percent of samples taken from Mengniu Dairy Group Co. and Yili Industrial Group Co. - China's two largest dairies - contained melamine. Milk from Shanghai-based Bright Dairy also shows melamine contamination.

Separately, Hong Kong's Food Safety Center has announced a recall of milk, yogurt, ice cream and all other products made by Yili after melamine was found in eight of 30 sample products tested in Hong Kong.

Questions have continued to swirl about the handling of the scandal by milk producer Sanlu Group Co. and government officials.

The company reportedly received complaints about its formula as early as March and tests revealed the contamination by early August, just before the Olympics. Sanlu went public with a recall on Sept. 11 after its New Zealand stakeholder told the New Zealand government, which then informed the Chinese government.

Melamine has no nutritional value but is high in nitrogen, making products with it appear higher in protein. Suppliers trying to cut costs are believed to have added the toxic chemical to watered-down milk to cover up the resulting protein deficiency.

The scandal has not been confined to Sanlu, one of China's best-known and most respected brands, based in this dusty northern Chinese city. The country's quality control watchdog has found that one-fifth of companies producing milk powder in China had melamine in their products.

"Who do you trust? I don't know. If such a big company is having problems, then I really don't know who to trust," said a 31-year-old man surnamed Yang, waiting in line outside a Sanlu office to get reimbursed for his 7-month-old daughter's medical exam and kidney ultrasound.

Yang, who refused to give his full name, held a bag with a can of Sanlu milk powder he planned to return for a refund. The formula cost $21.60, a significant amount of money for working families in China.

"What happens if something else goes wrong in the future? Is it just kidney stones? What if there are other problems?" said Yang, whose daughter checked out fine.

Parents traded tips on which brands were still considered safe after news that products from China's top dairy producers - Mengniu and Yili - were also found to be tainted.

"Now we have no idea what kind of milk to give the baby. They all have problems," said a woman surnamed Wang, the mother of a 1-year-old who had been drinking Sanlu formula for two months. "There are ... brands that are OK, but I can't remember the names."

At a nearby Sanlu processing facility, hundreds of people waited for refunds. Some held a half-empty pouch, while others hauled in cases of the formula. A red banner at the plant declared: "Pay attention to food safety, ensure the public's health."

Police in northern China's Hebei province, where Sanlu is based, arrested 12 more people Thursday, bringing the total to 18. Provincial police spokesman Shi Guizhong said six suspects allegedly sold melamine, while the others were accused of adding the chemical to milk.

The widening crisis has raised questions about the effectiveness of tighter controls China promised after a series of food safety scares in recent years over contaminated seafood, toothpaste and pet food tainted with melamine. In 2004, more than 200 Chinese infants suffered malnutrition and at least 12 died after being fed phony formula that contained no nutrients.

Panicked parents across the country were rushing to hospitals, wondering whether their children had been sickened by their formula.

"I have no choice but to give my son solid foods now even though he still wants the milk formula," said 26-year-old Wang Yucun, waiting in line at the Beijing Children's Hospital with her 11-month-old, Zexun, who has been drinking Sanlu and Yashili products since birth.

"What I want to know is why the exported milk products and milk products given to Olympic athletes were carefully inspected but the Chinese people suffer with poor quality products," Wang said.

"I thought I was buying a quality product because it comes with a government seal of approval. At least that's what I thought until now."