By SCOTT McDONALD | Associated Press Writer
10:24 PM EDT, September 21, 2008
BEIJING (AP) _ China said Sunday the number of children sickened by baby formula tainted with the banned industrial chemical melamine has doubled to nearly 12,900 as the government confronts a scandal over widespread contamination of the milk supply.
More than 80 percent of the 12,892 children hospitalized in recent weeks were 2 years old or younger, the Health Ministry said in a statement posted on its Web site late Sunday. Four children have died.
The ministry said most of the children sickened consumed infant formula from one company, the Shijiazhuang Sanlu Group Co. The dairy is at the center of one of China's worst food safety scandals in years.
Over the weekend, the Chinese territory of Hong Kong reported the first known illness outside mainland China — a 3-year-old girl who developed kidney stones after drinking Chinese dairy products. She was discharged from the hospital, the Hong Kong government said.
In the two weeks since the government first acknowledged the contamination, it has issued recalls for dairy products from 22 companies after tests turned up traces of melamine. The Health Ministry said that most of the hospitalized were sickened by powdered milk and formula.
"The hospitalized children basically consumed Sanlu brand infant milk powder. No cases have been found from ingesting liquid milk," said the statement.
Melamine is used in making plastics and is high in nitrogen, which registers as protein in tests of milk. Though health experts believe ingesting minute amounts poses no danger, melamine can cause kidney stones, which can lead to kidney failure. Infants are particularly vulnerable.
Some of the farmers who sell milk to Chinese food companies are thought to have used melamine to disguise watered-down milk and fatten profit margins hurt by rising costs for feed, fuel and labor.
The ministry did not say why the number of cases had suddenly doubled from 6,200 on Saturday, but it suggested that health officials were combing through hospital records from May through August to trace the origins of the contamination. The deaths of three infants linked to tainted infant formula occurred in those months, the statement said.
In Hong Kong, parents of the 3-year-old girl took her for a checkup because she had been drinking milk made by Chinese dairy Yili Industrial Group Co. every day for the past 15 months. Yili was among the 22 companies whose products were recalled for melamine contamination.
The Chinese government has launched high-profile efforts to show it is on top of the crisis, with Premier Wen Jiabao appearing on state-run television Sunday to say diary companies had to show more "social responsibility."
Wen was shown visiting a Beijing hospital where children were having health checks. He also stopped at a supermarket to look at dairy products.
"What we need to do now is to ensure that nothing like this happens in the future, not only in dairy products but in all food," Wen said.
Since the problem of tainted milk products became public knowledge less than two weeks ago, the crisis has spread to include almost all of China's biggest dairy companies. Their products have been pulled from stores around the country, and in other places such as the self-governing Chinese territories of Hong Kong and Macau. Starbucks stopped offering milk in its 300 outlets in China.
Hong Kong's two main supermarket chains said Sunday they were recalling milk powder made by Swiss manufacturer Nestle after a newspaper reported it contains melamine.
Spokeswomen for both companies said they acted as a precaution after Hong Kong's Apple Daily reported Sunday that tests it commissioned showed that Nestle milk powder made in China's northeastern Heilongjiang province contained melamine.
Nestle's Hong Kong office did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment. Calls after work hours to its Beijing office and Beijing hot line went unanswered.
But the company said in a statement last Wednesday that none of its infant formula and milk powder products contained melamine. "Nestle can hence assure its ... customers that its products are safe for consumption," it said.
Taiwanese company King Car Co. announced it has recalled packs of its Mr. Brown instant coffee and milk tea containing contaminated milk powder imported from China.
Japan and Singapore have recalled Chinese-made dairy products, and the governments of Malaysia and Brunei announced bans on milk products from China even though neither country currently imports Chinese dairy items.
The concern is because melamine has been found not only in powdered milk — used to make baby formula and other products — but also in liquid milk sold by China's biggest dairies.
Food and product safety scandals have been a feature of Chinese life. Only last year, the government promised to overhaul inspection procedures after exports of medicines, toys, pet food ingredients and other products killed and sickened people and pets in North and South America.
The chemical in the dangerous pet food was the same as in the milk scandal — melamine.