Dozens Detained in Milk Scandal

Anxious parents flood hospitals, vowing to fight for redress, while lawyers and rights activists warn that domestic media face curbs in reporting on the widening tainted milk crisis.

2008-09-30
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milk-scandal SHENZHEN, China: Parents queue up to have their children checked at Longgang central hospital in Shenzhen, 26 September 2008.
AFP

HONG KONGChinese government offices are being flooded with calls from anxious parents calling for greater transparency in the authorities' handling of a crisis over tainted milk powder, which has sickened more than 50,000 infants, officials and parents said.

One mother in the southern city of Shenzhen said parents were still uncertain which brands were safe to use, and called on the government to issue clear guidelines about which brands were free of the industrial chemical melamine, which has caused kidney problems in children all over China.

"Everybody knows that there are problems with Sanlu milk powder so we have been using Youbo, made by Shengyuan, but we haven't been able to get a clear answer out of anyone as to whether it's safe," said the woman, identified only by her surname Zhou.

"I am surprised by this. I called the State Quality Control Bureau. But we haven't had a definite answer from them. I also called Shengyuan and they said 'There are no problems.'"

They would definitely give us samples from the factory...But they would make absolutely sure that we couldn't find anything wrong with it."

Quality control official

"I asked the quality control bureau to publish a list of the milk powder brands that were OK to use. The person I spoke to said they weren't in charge of making that decision, and that they would pass on my suggestion to their boss. But since then, nothing has happened," Zhou added.

An official at the State Quality Control Bureau said the authorities were having trouble finding samples of milk to test.

"We have previously tested a few samples of Shengyuan Youbo milk powder, and we didn't find any problems. Having said that, regarding the caller you mentioned just now, we have been getting a great many calls from parents telling us that there are problems with Shengyuan Youbo formula, and we have informed our heads of department about this."

"Just now our department boss came over and told us that they are going to carry out more tests on Shengyuan Youbo. The trouble is, we have to go to the supermarket to buy samples for testing, and you can't buy it anywhere. Youbo has been totally taken off the shelves," he said.

He said the government no longer trusted the milk powder manufacturers to give samples for testing.

"They would definitely give us samples from the factory if we asked them. But they would make absolutely sure that we couldn't find anything wrong with it. That way, you wouldn't get a realistic result, would you?"

He said government scientists would test the brand as soon as they could track down a sample.

Meanwhile, Zhou said she had paid for private tests to be carried out. "Our baby has now got kidney stones from drinking Youbo, so we have sent three tins of our own for testing. Two tins were Youbo and one was Gold Label Youcong," she said.

Dozens detained

Authorities in China have detained dozens of people after raids on dairy farms suspected of adding the industrial chemical melamine to milk used in infant formula powder and other foodstuffs.

While official media gave full play to the crackdown, in which top managers at New Zealand-invested joint venture Sanlu and other companies, along with local Communist Party officials, have already been fired, rights groups warned that the government was already suppressing media coverage of the scandal.

At least four babies have died after developing kidney problems, and a further 54,000 have fallen ill with kidney stones. Another 10,000 cases are expected to be reported around the country.

China's iconic "White Rabbit" milk-candies have been ordered off the shelves, Chinese-made bars of Cadbury's Dairy Milk have been recalled, and governments have moved to ban all imports of dairy products from China.

China's tainted milk scandal came to light after infant milk formula sold by up to 22 Chinese companies, including Sanlu Group Co., the Chinese partner of New Zealand dairy giant Fonterra, was found to be contaminated with melamine.

Xinhua news agency said police in Hebei province seized more than 480 pounds (220 kilos) of melamine, which had been produced in underground plants and sold to breeding farms and purchasing stations. Of the 22 detainees, 19 were managers of pastures, breeding farms, and purchasing stations.

But China Human Rights Defenders, a network of domestic and foreign human rights activists, said the Communist Party's powerful propaganda department had tightened its grip on media freedom to contain rising nationwide outrage.

Hospitals have been besieged by hundreds of anxious parents, who are also visiting lawyers in droves to plan class-action suits against the companies and officials concerned.

Many medical facilities have offered free health checks for babies and toddlers, but parents fear authorities will try to cover up the full extent of the crisis.

The number of Chinese women who rely on breast milk alone to feed their newborns has dropped as mothers go back to work, under pressure to use formula out of need for greater flexibility and freedom.

Such economic pressures have taken China's tainted milk crisis to every corner of the country, affecting affluent middle-class families as well as poorer children of rural families and migrant workers.

Original reporting by RFA's Mandarin service. Director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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