Milk scandal: China vows food safety overhaul

Updated on Sep 24, 2008 10:37 AM IST

Premier Wen Jiabao said China would strive to bring its food safety standards up to international levels, describing the thousands of children sick as a painful lesson.

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Reuters | By, Beijing

Premier Wen Jiabao said China would strive to bring its food safety standards up to international levels, describing the thousands of children sick from drinking chemical-laced milk powder as a painful lesson.

Beijing is battling public alarm and international dismay after close to 13,000 Chinese children crowded hospitals, ill from infant milk formula tainted with melamine, a cheap industrial chemical that can be used to cheat quality checks.

So far, four deaths have been blamed on kidney stones and complications caused by the toxic milk. China's latest food safety crisis has triggered arrests, official sackings and bans and tightened inspections in trade partners.

Wen told an audience in New York that his government would seize the crisis as an opportunity to overhaul product safety controls.

China would "strengthen institutional development, and take seriously supervision and inspections in every link of production, truly ensuring the interests of consumers", Xinhua news agency quoted him as saying.

"China will fundamentally improve its product quality and food safety, and Chinese-produced goods, especially food, must meet both international standards and the requirements of importing countries."

This was not the first time that a Chinese leader has sought to reassure a foreign audience that the country was cracking down on unsafe products.

Last year, China launched a quality drive after a surge of scares over toys, toothpaste, pharmaceutical ingredients and pet food ingredients, which were also laced with melamine.

At that time, Chinese officials often said foreign media and critics had exaggerated the country's problems.

But now they are focused on quelling domestic alarm and anger, with 54,000 Chinese children affected and over 100 in a serious condition, revelations of a government-blessed cover-up, and consumers wondering just what milk products might be safe.

China has said it found melamine in nearly 10 percent of milk and drinking yoghurt samples from three major dairy companies.

"Out of control"

Agriculture Minister Sun Zhengcai said this week that the milk merchants buying the raw liquid from farmers and selling it to processers were "basically out of control".

Sun and other officials have blamed them for adding nitrogen-rich melamine to sub-standard or watered-down milk, fooling quality checks measuring protein, also rich in nitrogen.

The chemical has also turned up in exported products and ingredients, prompting foreign markets to clear them from shelves and introduce bans or strict checks on "made-in-China" milk.

New Zealand dairy export giant Fonterra Co-operative Group slashed the value of its big investment in China's Sanlu Group by nearly 70 percent on Wednesday.

Sanlu has been at the centre of the scandal, with many of the infant poisonings linked to its popular milk powder.

The official Xinhua news agency reported that Sanlu knew for many months that its infant milk powder was tainted.

Fonterra repeated that it first knew of the contamination in early August, and took what it regarded as the best action by working with local Chinese authorities on a product recall.

"If something did exist prior to that we're shocked that it did and we obviously feel that if people were aware of it it should have gone to the board," chief executive Andrew Ferrier told a media briefing in Auckland.

Fonterra cut the value of its 43 percent stake in Sanlu to about NZ$62 million ($42 million).

Germany's biggest retailer Metro AG said on Tursday it had withdrawn milk powder products from two of its 37 Cash & Carry stores in China.

A spokesman for Metro's Cash & Carry unit said Metro had stocked milk powder products from the Sanlu Group in the two wholesale stores.

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