HONG KONG—China's health ministry has denied any link between a wave of cases of premature sexual development in infant girls and a popular brand of milk powder, saying that a clinical probe revealed 'no evidence' to support the claims by parents.
Parents of baby girls who have begun to develop breasts have been thronging hospitals in recent weeks, amid calls for a probe into the milk powder, made by Nasdaq-listed Synutra International.
Food safety experts led by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention tested 42 samples of Synutra products and 31 samples of dairy products from other producers, including the Synutra milk drunk by one of the affected infants.
Health ministry spokesman Deng Haihua said hormone levels were well within normal ranges in the sample products, with no hormones apparently added after the milk was manufactured.
Last week, Wuhan resident Deng Xiaoyun said her daughter had already stopped drinking the Shengyuan brand milk formula.
"Her hormone levels have gone down a bit now," Deng said. "I asked the specialist what the reason was, and he actually laughed and said, 'Wasn't that the result you wanted?'"
"We are very suspicious, because the levels of hormones went down after we stopped using this milk," she said.
Parents criticized the tests for using only one sample from an affected child, saying that different batches of powder might vary in composition.
"Which batch numbers did they actually test?" Deng Xiaoyun asked in response to the ministry announcement.
Nasdaq-listed Synutra has dismissed the allegations made by parents as "a media event," saying there is no scientific evidence to show that its products are responsible for the cases.
An employee who answered the phone at Synutra's Beijing offices last week said the company had already responded to inquiries about its milk products on its website. She declined to comment further.
In the online statement Synutra expressed sympathy for the families affected, but added: "We intend to prosecute the parties responsible for these accusations to the furthest extent possible."
While national media have played down the number of infants affected, local media reports said the endocrinology departments of some hospitals are full of infant girls and their worried parents.
A Shanghai parent surnamed Zhang whose daughter has the same problem said he had to wait overnight in the waiting room of the Shanghai Municipal Children's Hospital because of the large numbers of parents with children lining up to see doctors.
Call for further investigation
The first signs of an official probe have been slow to arrive for many parents whose children started showing alarming signs of sexual development when they were just a few months old.
A father of an affected child, Li Xu, said last week that the government hasn't fulfilled its role as a supervisor of food safety.
"If they were really concerned about the rights of consumers, they would have shut down this sector for further investigation to find out what is behind these problems," Li said.
Parent Xiang Qingyu said that any attempt to complain or put pressure on the authorities has so far met with strong resistance.
"There are a few supervisory departments, including the health ministry, the industrial and commercial offices and the quality supervison agencies, who really haven't taken to heart the issue of food safety in the wake of the melamine scandal," Xiang said.
"One incident occurs, and then another, and all they do is strategize and cover it up if they can. They will only admit it if they have no other options left. China's food safety standards are in a dangerous state."
Around 300,000 children became ill with kidney stones and six died in 2008 after they drank infant formula milk laced with melamine, a chemical added to milk products to make their protein content appear richer.
Local media reported that around 30,000 children appear to have been affected in Shanghai, but that the "reasons are unclear."
"My child's test results haven't come back yet," said Shanghai parent Zhang.
"Right now, there are large numbers of people waiting in the endocrinology department, but there are only a few dozen consultations available daily."
"My child has already stopped drinking the milk, but the problem hasn't gone away."
A health worker at the endocrinology department in Shanghai told the city's Morning News that 54 children had been seen in the department Tuesday, twice as many as on a normal day, most of them showing the same symptoms of early development.
Calls to the endocrinology department of the Shanghai Municipal Children's Hospital were met with repeated busy signals during office hours Thursday.
Healthcare workers at the children's hospital in the southwestern city of Kunming said they had received more than 1,000 similar cases in the past month, with similar numbers reported in the eastern city of Wuxi.
Original reporting in Cantonese by Fung Yat-yiu, and in Mandarin by Qiao Long. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.