BEIJING (Reuters) - Singapore banned all dairy imports from China on Friday and the European Union demanded answers from Beijing as the baby formula scandal that has left thousands of infants ill across China spread to liquid milk.
A government food quality watchdog in China said nearly 10 percent of milk and drinking yoghurt samples from three major dairy companies were contaminated with potentially deadly melamine.
Panicked parents have crowded hospitals and demanded redress since officials and the Sanlu Group, China’s biggest maker of infant milk powder, said last week that babies were sick with kidney stones and complications after drinking toxic milk powder.
At the latest count, 6,244 children have become ill. Four have died and 158 are suffering “acute kidney failure”.
The tide of sick children is overwhelming some doctors, the official Xinhua agency said, quoting a man who was turned away by hospitals in his hometown.
Li Zhanshan, whose nine-month-old son has a kidney stone 0.9 centimeter in diameter, rushed to the capital instead but was also rejected at one packed Beijing hospital, the report added.
Singapore said on Friday it had banned the import and sale of all milk and dairy products from China after tests found melamine contamination in two brands of China-made milk products.
Beijing has already recalled some milk powder exported by two firms whose products were found to be contaminated, and although it said “there has been no bad reaction” to those goods, many countries are fretting about their citizens’ health.
On Thursday, Hong Kong recalled dairy products of one Chinese company.
Robert Madelin, director-general for health and consumer protection at the European Commission, said the European Union did not import Chinese infant milk powder and there had been no EU reports of illness from other imported Chinese dairy products.
But with foreign consumers watching China again struggle with toxic food and claims of delays and cover-ups, Madelin told reporters in Beijing he expected an account of what went wrong.
“We are trying to establish the facts,” Madelin said.
“On the governance aspects, we are also asking questions, and we will learn the truth probably about the same time you do.”
After a nationwide check, China’s General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine named two of China’s top dairy producers, Xinhua news agency has reported.
Almost one-tenth of liquid milk and yoghurt batches from Mengniu Dairy and Inner Mongolia Yili Industrial Group Co Ltd contained melamine, which is banned in food. Several samples of milk from the Bright dairy group also had the substance.
Used in making plastics, melamine is rich in nitrogen, an element often used to measure protein levels. By adding melamine to watered-down milk, dealers can fool quality checks.
Starbucks Corp said its 300-plus cafes in mainland China had pulled milk supplied by Mengniu. Starbucks said no employees or customers had fallen ill from the milk.
Yili, a Beijing Olympic Games sponsor, already faced a recall in Hong Kong, where authorities found eight of its 30 products, including ice-cream and yoghurt ice bars, contained melamine.
Mengniu and Yili apologized to shaken consumers and investors and vowed to recall and destroy problem products.
“Anyone who must step down will step down, anyone who must bear legal responsibility will bear legal responsibility,” Yao Tongshan, Mengniu executive director and chief financial officer, told reporters in Hong Kong, where the company is listed.
Quality officials stressed that most Chinese milk was safe, trying to shore up public trust already shaken by a litany of food scares involving eggs, pork and seafood in recent years.
The Chinese quality watchdog also said melamine-tainted milk would not make adults sick unless they drank more than two liters a day. But consumers sounded far from reassured.
“I’m pretty worried. In the future I will certainly trust the milk industry less,” said Zhang Xi, a 25-year-old engineer, sitting at a Starbucks outlet in Beijing.
China launched reforms to clean up food and product safety after a wave of scandals last year, including melamine found in pet food ingredients sent to the United States.
It has again vowed to punish errant businesses and officials and there have already been dismissals and detentions linked to Sanlu, 43 percent owned by New Zealand dairy giant Fonterra.
Additional reporting by Simon Rabinovitch, Ben Blanchard, John Ruwitch, Melanie Lee and Reuters TV; Editing by Nick Macfie and Jeremy Laurence