Food recalls expanded in Europe and Asia Thursday as an industrial chemical linked to the deaths of four babies turned up in candies and other Chinese-made exports that were quickly pulled from store shelves.
In China, authorities were pulling White Rabbit candy from shelves in Shanghai and the southern province of Hainan. They were the first public reports of domestic recalls of goods other than milk products and milk.
In Hong Kong, tests on White Rabbit showed it contained an "unsatisfactory" level of melamine of more than six times the legal limit, according to the government's Center for Food Safety.
There has been no public announcement of a nationwide recall of the candy from China's safety watchdog. A woman who works at the propaganda department of the quality body, the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, said that she did not know of White Rabbit candy being recalled in China. She did not give her name, as is common with officials in China.
It issued a recall list on Sept. 16 for 69 batches of milk powder made by 22 companies. The only other recall list was on Sept. 19 for liquid milk.
The Shanghai government has urged a subsidiary of Bright Food Group to stop the sales of White Rabbit candy — one of the best-known candies in China — and pull them off the shelves, and to recall those for export that are likely to have problems, it said.
The subsidiary, Guan Sheng Yuan, has been making White Rabbit candies for almost 50 years, with exports to Southeast Asia and Chinese communities overseas.
A man who answered the phone at the company said Bright Food Group is having a meeting to discuss what to do next after reports the candy had tested positive for melamine. He did not give his name, saying the company has yet to appoint a spokesman.
"The inspection is ongoing and we are waiting for the results," Xu Yongxin, a public affairs official for Bright Food Group Co, which makes the candy, said by phone Thursday.
Australia and New Zealand also issued recalls Thursday for imported White Rabbit candy.
New Zealand Food Safety Authority spokesman Geoff Allen said he expected the White Rabbit Creamy Candies to be off shelves within 24 hours.
"This product contains sufficiently high levels of melamine which may, in some individuals, cause health problems such as kidney stones," deputy chief executive Sandra Daly said in a statement. "The levels we have found in these products are unacceptable."
Australian food regulators issued a statement late Wednesday announcing they had formally requested that wholesalers and importers voluntarily withdraw the candies pending further testing for melamine — an industrial chemical used to make plastics and fertilizer.
Vietnam also temporarily banned milk products from China and stepped up import inspections. The Ministry of Health has dispatched two teams of health workers and police to inspect diary products, said the ministry's deputy chief inspector Bui Duc Phong on Thursday.
South Korea banned imports of any Chinese-made food products containing powdered milk Thursday following the discovery of biscuits tainted with melamine.
Myanmar's state media said authorities will destroy 17 1/2 tons of Chinese powdered milk, valued at $50,000, because it was made by one of 22 dairy companies with chemically tainted products. The Bi-Weekly Eleven journal said in its Thursday edition that the milk powder made by China's Yili Industrial Group Co. had not yet been distributed in Myanmar.
Chinese baby formula tainted with the chemical has not only been blamed for the deaths of four infants in China but also for the illnesses of 53,000 others there. Health experts say ingesting a small amount of the chemical poses no danger, but melamine can cause kidney stones and lead to kidney failure. Infants are particularly vulnerable.
The Hong Kong government said Thursday that a fifth child there has grown a kidney stone after drinking contaminated milk, adding that the 10-year-old boy is hospitalized in stable condition. Neighboring Macau has also reported a case.
The problem also now affects animals. Three baby animals — two orangutans and a lion cub — at the Hangzhou Wild Animal Park near Shanghai have kidney stones after being fed milk powder for more than a year, said Zhang Xu, a veterinarian with the Hangzhou Zhangxu Animal Hospital.
In China's tropical Hainan island some supermarkets in the capital Haikou have pulled White Rabbit candies from the shelves, according to a report on the Web site of People's Daily Thursday.
It is not clear if China's safety watchdog has ordered a nationwide recall of the candy.
U.S. and European consumer safety officials urged Beijing to better enforce product safety standards.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said White Rabbit candy has been added to its list of products being inspected at ports of entry, but that no melamine-tainted goods from China of any sort have turned up yet. Nonetheless, some ethnic grocers started removing the popular candies from their shelves.
A woman who answered the phone at AsianFoodGrocer.com in San Francisco said the company is no longer selling White Rabbit candies. "Everything has been taken off-line," said the woman, who would not give her name.
On Wednesday British supermarket chain Tesco removed Chinese-made White Rabbit Creamy Candies off its shelves as a precaution amid reports that samples of the milk candy in Singapore and New Zealand had tested positive for melamine.
In Europe, the Dutch food safety watchdog has begun checking Chinese food for traces of contaminated milk.
France also banned the sale of all goods containing derivatives of Chinese dairy products, including biscuits, candy or other such foods. But European Union food safety experts in Brussels said there is only a limited risk to children in Europe from imports of food from China.
In New York Wednesday, China's premier sought to ease the growing concern abroad over the growing crisis over Chinese food exports by vowing to strengthen product safety checks and meet international standards.
China needs to better enforce checks at every stage of production and step up efforts to protect consumer interests, Premier Wen Jiabao said on the sidelines of a meeting of the U.N. General Assembly.
"We want to make sure that our products and our food will not only meet the domestic and international standards, but also meet the specific requirements of the import countries," Wen said at an event organized by American organizations.
Speaking in China, where U.S. and European officials were attending seminars on product safety, a U.S. official said China's troubles with contaminated milk highlight the need for better enforcement of product safety standards in manufacturing.
"The melamine situation just underscores the message that we are trying to deliver, and that is you have to know what's coming into your factory and what's going out of your factory," said Nancy Nord, acting head of the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission.
The Chinese government has been scrambling to show it is tackling the problem. In recent days, the government announced high-profile arrests and forced resignations of officials.
The dairy at the center of the scandal, Sanlu Group Co., will not be able to recover from the damage it has suffered to its reputation, its New Zealand partner said Wednesday. An investigation into the contamination found Sanlu received complaints about its infant formula as early as December 2007 and covered up the problem for months, state media reported earlier this week.
The Chinese government has taken control of Sanlu, which is 43 percent owned by New Zealand's Fonterra Cooperative, and shut down its operations, Fonterra Chief Executive Andrew Ferrier said at a briefing. Sanlu is based in northern China's Hebei province.
There was no immediate response Wednesday from Sanlu. Several calls during the day were answered by temporary workers in the company's media department who took down questions but said it was up to senior company officials to decide whether to reply. The workers refused to give their names, which is common among Chinese employees.