About 53,000 children across China — mostly two to three years old — are now known to have taken ill after feeding on a chemical cocktail of milk powder made with a raw material used in the plastic industry.
The fallout of China’s worst food safety crisis in decades has swept across Asia to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, Malaysia, Bangladesh, and the Philippines, as Chinese dairy imports are being tested, banned or recalled.
Within China, worried parents who cannot afford imported milk are switching to soymilk. Almost 10 per cent of liquid milk of major Chinese brands was also found contaminated with melamine — an industrial chemical that causes illnesses including kidney stones.
“Consumers will start rebuying in a month or two... Exports will take longer,’’ Lao Bing, manager of a Shanghai-based dairy investment company, told Reuters. “This will have a major impact.”
The numbers are staggering: four infant deaths, 104 serious cases, 12,892 children hospitalised and about 40,000 treated at out-patient departments of hospitals nationwide.
On Monday, Li Changjiang, the head of China’s quality watchdog became the highest-ranking official to lose his job since the scandal broke and citizens questioned the official delay in acting on complaints that began in March.
Earlier this month, there were only 59 known cases of babies sickened after feeding on milk powder of the Sanlu Group.
Production at Sanlu, China’s biggest baby milk powder producer, has since halted. Some products of 22 dairy companies (including the three biggest in China) have also been recalled.
In the latest case beyond China, milk-based Chinese candy reportedly tested positive for melamine in Singapore. In Hong Kong, a three-year-old girl was diagnosed with kidney stones.
On Sunday, at a city hospital, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao said that those responsible would not be let off. “The government will put more efforts into food security, taking the incident as a warning,” he said. But for the made-in-China food brand, the road to recovery will be a long one.