Chinese parents in agony over tainted baby formula

NANJING, China — As China suffers through yet another crisis over food safety, Wang Jun and Wang Yuan endure a private agony at the bedside of their hospitalized infant son, watching him wince in pain.

It's bad enough that the 6 1/2 month-old has kidney stones and is able to urinate only a few drops at a time, a victim of tainted infant formula.

What's worse, they say, is that they fear the kidney ailment may condemn their only child to health problems for years to come.

"We are worried this illness will influence the boy's development," said Wang Jun.

Wang Jun, a 27-year-old migrant worker, has had a hellish few days since his wife called his cell phone last Saturday at noon while he was toiling on a far-away factory floor in Shenzhen, the booming city across the border from Hong Kong.

She was near tears, breathlessly explaining how the television newscasts were full of stories about infant formula tainted by a substance that can cause lethal kidney failure. Milk vendors had spiked their milk with the substance to earn a few cents extra profit, and now children all over China were falling ill.

"I was so scared," Wang Yuan recalled. "We don't know too much about medical things. We didn't know if it was life-threatening."

She barked orders into the phone.

"I said, 'Come back immediately. We are going to Nanjing. There are stones in our boy's kidneys and we don't know what will happen,'" Wang Yuan said.

The story has had echoes across China, even rippling around the world. By Wednesday, authorities acknowledged that 6,244 infants had fallen ill and that 158 of them were suffering acute kidney failure. China's $19 billion dairy industry teetered. Shares of dairy companies slumped, or stopped trading all together on the Hong Kong and Shanghai stock exchanges.

Only hours earlier, authorities ordered infant-formula recalls from 22 companies found to have milk powder containing melamine, an industrial chemical that can make watered-down milk appear to have higher protein content. Last year, the same chemical was found in pet food exports that killed off thousands of cats and dogs in the U.S.

China's quality watchdog agency said some limited exports of tainted infant formula had found their way to Bangladesh, Myanmar, Yemen, Burundi and Gabon.

Consumer confidence in dairy and infant-formula companies plummeted.

At a branch of the Suguo supermarket in this former capital city along the Yangtze River in central China, a sign was attached to the shelf above Yili infant formula, a large company with one brand of formula that has been recalled because of melamine content.

"Please consume and use without worry," the sign said of other Yili brands.

"Yili has no problem at all," a supermarket employee said to a shopping mother.

"Yili stock is suspended now," the shopper shot back, referring to news from the Shanghai stock exchange.

"It's up to national standard," the employee said.

"I don't dare to feed my baby with Yili," the mother said, walking off.

Outside the high-rise Nanjing Children's Hospital, Wang Jun approached a foreigner speaking to another parent and shyly held up a can of imported infant formula.

"Is this brand of infant formula safe?" he asked.

Quickly, his story poured out. He and his wife had been feeding their infant one of China's leading brands of formula, from the Sanlu (Three Deer) Group, when the scandal broke last week that Sanlu formula was heavily contaminated.

Like many parents, he voiced shock, dismay and anger all jumbled together.

"The Sanlu Group is just concerned about profits. They don't care about the health of babies," Wang said as another parent joined in.

Debate ensued about who should bear the blame for the scandal: dairy farmers eager to reap greater profits, unscrupulous formula makers, government inspectors who didn't do their jobs, or senior Chinese leaders who pledged last year to tighten up quality standards amid a global scare about tainted Chinese pet food, toothpaste and toys.

While Wang was reticent to cast blame, other parents boldly suggested senior leaders had let the country down.

"I think the central government is responsible for this," said Ding Hailin, a construction worker from outlying Jiangsu province, mocking the assurances that Beijing offered on food safety for athletes of the 2008 Summer Olympics while ignoring the safety of the populace.

"We won't drink any milk powder or dairy products again. Even the famous brands have problems," Ding said.

Anger boiled up in another mother, Wang Hong, whose 7-month-old infant boy also has kidney stones from drinking Sanlu formula. Like the other parents, she fretted that her infant son may suffer lifelong health woes related to the damaging of his kidneys.

"If the baby can't recover, who will take care of him his whole life?" she asked.

Health Minister Chen Zhu sought to reassure the nation Wednesday, declaring that China's largest dairy producers would be reorganized with stronger oversight. He dismissed concerns about long-lasting health impacts on sick infants.

"Health experts say that a small amount of melamine intake will be discharged out of the body in a short time and will not have a major impact," Chen said.

Such reassurances were of little comfort on the 13th floor of the hospital, where the Wangs posed for a photo with their son and reflected on the budgetary abyss caused by the boy's sickness.

At Wang's Shenzhen job designing home furnishings at a factory, he earns the equivalent of about $290 a month. With that sum, he supports his parents, his stay-at-home wife and their infant son back in Wangzhi Town in Anhui province.

But now, on a two-week leave to tend to his ailing infant, he stopped earning a paycheck. And the hospital bill for his boy already topped $160.

"I am the only breadwinner. It's a heavy burden," Wang said, adding that the hospital told him it might refund some of the money.

Still, Wang said Chinese workers like him, at the bottom rung of the economic ladder, need government inspectors to do their jobs to ensure health and safety conditions, and private companies to sell reliable products. Without those assurances, people will suffer, he said.

"We are weak people," Wang said.


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