BEIJING — A scandal over tainted infant formula spread Monday as authorities acknowledged that as many as 10,000 babies may have ingested milk powder laced with the same chemical found in contaminated pet-food exports last year that caused scores of U.S. animals to die.
The admission cast a cloud over China's dairy industry, and New Zealand's prime minister accused China of covering up the contamination until she blew the whistle.
Inspectors fanned across China for rush inspections of the nation's 175 baby formula producers to try to rebuild confidence in dairy products among stunned consumers.
Following the success of the Beijing Summer Olympics last month, the infant-formula scandal is proving an embarrassment to the government, showing it has yet to ensure food safety despite a string of global recalls last year involving Chinese products, including tainted toothpaste and key ingredients used in pet food.
Pet food exports containing melamine, which can trigger kidney failure, were linked to the deaths of hundreds of dogs and cats in the U.S. early in 2007.
Authorities acknowledged a jump in the numbers of babies affected by infant formula tainted with melamine, a chemical used in plastics and fertilizers that can make protein levels of diluted milk appear higher than they actually are.
So far, 1,253 babies have become ill from tainted baby formula manufactured by the Sanlu Group, and 340 of them are in the hospital, with 53 of them in serious condition, Health Ministry spokesman Ma Xiaowei said in a news conference. He acknowledged that two infants died in Gansu Province, a poor, dusty region in the nation's arid northwest.
"As many as 10,000 infants may have drunk the contaminated Sanlu infant formula," Ma said.
The figures marked a sharp rise from previous days, and consumer anger appeared to be mounting over apparent signs that the Sanlu Group knew of consumer complaints as long ago as March that some babies were admitted to hospitals with kidney stones, a rare ailment among infants.
Prime Minister Helen Clark of New Zealand came to the defense of the world's biggest milk trader, Fonterra, a New Zealand company that owns a 43 percent stake in Sanlu Group, a leading infant formula maker in China.
Clark said she learned of the contamination at a meeting in Wellington Sept. 5 and ordered her embassy in Beijing to raise the alarm with the central government.
"Once we blew the whistle in Beijing, they moved very fast," Clark told New Zealand Television, according to a video available on its Web site.
Clark said local officials in Hebei province, where Sanlu is based, did not want to order an official recall of the tainted milk powder.
"At the local level in China, given all the bad publicity China has had about food scares, I think their first inclination was to put a towel over it and deal with it without an official recall," Clark said.
Fonterra chief executive Andrew Ferrier said the melamine likely was put in milk before it arrived at the factory, characterizing what occurred as a possible "sabotage of a product."
Chinese regulators have ordered Sanlu Group to halt production and say they will destroy more than 10,000 tons of seized baby formula, the state Xinhua news agency said.
Sanlu's vice president, Zhang Zhenling, read a letter of apology to consumers at a news conference in Shijiazhuang, Hebei's provincial capital, where the company is based.
"Sanlu Group expresses its most sincere apology to you," Zhang said.
None of Sanlu's infant formula is believed to have been exported to North America. Two brothers who are milk brokers in Hebei province were arrested, Xinhua said, and one confessed to lacing some three tons of milk a day with melamine beginning late last year. Officials said they believe milk was tainted by brokers who collect from farmers before selling to large dairy companies.
Chinese state television acknowledged that public faith in the dairy industry had plummeted.
"Many Chinese consumers now have doubts about all milk products," a report on the noon state newscast said. A similar scandal unfolded in 2004 when at least 13 babies in Anhui province in China's east died after consuming fake infant formula with no nutritional value.
The head of China's food watchdog agency, Li Changjiang, visited Hebei province over the weekend and was shown bags of tainted milk powder seized by police.
"It's shocking," said Li, who heads the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, according to China Daily. "It's a crime against the people."
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