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China blames milk suppliers in baby health scare

BEIJING (Reuters) - China has questioned 78 people in a health scare involving tainted baby milk formula linked to the death of one infant and the development of kidney stones in dozens of others across the country, state media said on Friday.

China’s quality watchdog also launched a nationwide probe into all baby milk powders as a local dairy producer admitted its formula had been contaminated with melamine, a toxin linked to the deaths and illness of thousands of pets in the United States last year.

Authorities were investigating whether the tainted milk had caused the death of one baby in the northwestern province of Gansu and development of kidney stones in more than 50 others there and in other provinces this year.

Investigations showed that most of the babies had drunk formula produced by Sanlu Group, a Hebei province-based dairy producer partly owned by New Zealand dairy export giant Fonterra Co-operative Group Ltd.

An official in Shijiazhuang, capital of Hebei and Sanlu Group’s headquarters, said police had questioned 78 people in the case and laid the blame on unscrupulous suppliers.

“The suspects added water to the milk they sold to Sanlu to make more money. They also added melamine so that the diluted milk could still meet standards,” Xinhua quoted Shijiazhuang Vice Mayor Zhao Xinchao as saying.

The report did not say whether police had made any arrests.

Melamine, used in making plastics, fertilizers and cleaning products, has been used by Chinese suppliers of animal feed components to make protein levels appear higher than they are in quality testing.

Melamine-contaminated ingredients sourced from China for use in pet food were linked to kidney failures and kidney stones in thousands of cats and dogs in the United States last year.

KIDNEY STONES

Sanlu Group, which recalled thousands of metric tons of formula this week, told Xinhua the suspects were dairy farmers and milk dealers but declined to say whether its employees were under investigation.

The company said 700 metric tons of milk remained to be recalled.

Calls to the company went unanswered.

Kidney stones, a rare complaint in infants, are small, solid masses that form when salts or minerals normally found in urine crystallize inside the kidney.

If they become large enough, they can move out of the kidney, cause infection and lead to permanent kidney damage.

China’s quality watchdog, the Administration of Quality, Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ), had launched a probe into all baby milk producers, Xinhua said.

“The results (of the investigation) will be announced to the public in a timely manner,” AQSIQ said in a statement.

The World Health Organisation said it was in close consultation with Chinese health authorities.

“We are monitoring the situation in China and for potential wider implications for other countries,” WHO China representative Hans Troedsson told Reuters in an emailed statement.

It was unclear whether any of the formula had been exported.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned consumers on Thursday not to buy or use baby formula from China, which is banned in the United States.

The problem formula had been sold in mainly poor and remote regions of the country at much lower prices than usual, Xinhua said, citing parents whose children were affected.

Parents in Beijing returned Sanlu formula to supermarkets.

“When we heard about this problem last night, we did not sleep well,” said Diao Long, the father of a baby daughter who had drunk Sanlu for the past six months. “We are really worried there could be serious side-effects for our child.”

In 2004, at least 13 babies in the eastern province of Anhui died after drinking fake milk powder that investigators later found had no nutritional value. The scandal rocked the country and triggered widespread investigations into food and health safety.

China, the world’s second-biggest market for baby milk powder, was hit by a number of quality scandals last year involving substandard food, drugs and toys, shaking foreign markets’ confidence in the “made in China” label.

Reporting by Ian Ransom, Lucy Hornby and Beijing newsroom; additional reporting by Tan Ee Lyn in Hong Kong; editing by Roger Crabb

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