TIMELINE: China plays catch-up in new milk powder scandal

(Reuters) - China said on Wednesday a third infant had died from drinking milk powder contaminated with toxic melamine and 6,244 infants were sick.

The widening scandal in China, the world’s second-biggest market for baby milk powder, has rekindled memories of a 2004 milk powder tragedy that killed more than a dozen babies and raised questions about mechanisms for reporting substandard or contaminated products.

Here are some key dates tracing the development of recent milk powder scandals.

* April 21, 2004: At least 13 babies die in China’s eastern Anhui Province after being fed fake milk powder with no nutritional value falsely labeled with Sanlu brand. About 190 other malnourished victims, dubbed “big headed babies” because their heads swell while their bodies waste away, are affected.

* June 9: Six officials sacked over scandal in Anhui city of Fuyang, including the head of industrial and commerce bureau and a deputy director of health. Investigation finds they failed to take steps after receiving an initial complaint about the fake powder in May 2003.

* Dec 1, 2005: New Zealand company Fonterra, the world’s largest dairy exporter, pays $107 million for 43 percent of Sanlu, China’s top milk powder producer, following rivals into China’s fast-growing milk products market.

* March 2008: Sanlu receives customer complaints that babies’ urine is discolored and some have been admitted to hospital. Company officials say they investigated and recalled some products at this time, but did not inform the government.

* May: Five-month old boy dies in northwestern Gansu province in what is later said to be first fatality linked to the chemical-laced milk.

* July: Eight-month old girl dies after her parents remove her from hospital in second death later linked to the powder.

* Aug 2. Sanlu starts recall from suppliers. Fonterra says it first learnt of problem in August.

* Sept 5: New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark is informed of milk powder problem. Three days later, New Zealand officials are ordered to bypass local officials and inform Chinese government.

* Sept 8: Hebei provincial government informed of problem by government of provincial capital Shijiazhuang, where Sanlu Group is based.

* Sept 10: Chinese media reports that babies have fallen ill after drinking Sanlu milk formula.

* Sept 11: Sanlu issues recall of product made before Aug 6. U.S. food and drug regulators warn that China-made baby formula, illegal in the U.S., may have slipped into U.S.

* Sept 12: Nationwide baby milk probe launched in China. Shijiazhuang vice mayor says the milk was diluted with water, then melamine, a toxic chemical that makes protein levels appear high.

* Sept 13: First baby death from contaminated milk powder reported.

* Sept 15: Second baby death reported. Two traders arrested in Hebei for producing and selling contaminated milk. Clark says Chinese officials failed to recall the milk powder when asked to by Fonterra.

* Sept 17: Third infant death reported. Number of affected infants rises to 6,244. Four city officials sacked in Shijiazhuang. Sanlu chairwoman and general manager also sacked.

Source: Reuters

Compiled by Gillian Murdoch, Beijing Editorial Reference Unit; Editing by Nick Macfie and Jerry Norton