BEIJING – China's tainted milk crisis widened Friday after tests found the industrial chemical melamine in liquid milk produced by three of the country's leading dairy companies, the quality watchdog said.
Singapore suspended the sale and import of all Chinese milk and dairy products because several tested items were contaminated.
Tainted baby formula has been blamed for killing four infants and sickening 6,200 in China since the scandal broke last week. Some 1,300 babies, mostly newborns, are currently in hospitals and 158 of them are suffering from acute kidney failure. Thousands of parents across the country were bringing their children to hospitals for health checks.
The crisis was initially thought to have been confined to tainted milk powder. But about 10 percent of liquid milk samples taken from Mengniu Dairy Group Co. and Yili Industrial Group Co. — China's two largest dairy producers — contained melamine, according to the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine. Milk from Shanghai-based Bright Dairy also showed contamination.
Singapore's Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority said tests revealed traces of melamine in samples of a Yili-brand yogurt bar and Dutch Lady-brand strawberry milk manufactured in China. Authorities said they plan to destroy all samples of these two products in Singapore. Officials also warned local food manufacturers against using milk products from China as ingredients.
Hong Kong's two biggest grocery chains, PARKnSHOP and Wellcome, pulled all liquid milk by Mengniu from shelves Friday. A day earlier, Hong Kong had recalled milk, yogurt, ice cream and other products made by Yili Industrial Group Co.
Starbucks Corp. said its 300 cafes in mainland China had pulled milk supplied by Mengniu. Seattle-based Starbucks said no employees or customers had fallen ill from the milk.
The scandal began with complaints over milk powder by Sanlu Group Co. — one of China's best-known and most respected brands. But it quickly became a much larger problem as government tests found that one-fifth of the companies producing baby milk powder had melamine in their products.
Melamine is a toxic industrial chemical that can cause kidney stones and lead to kidney failure. It has no nutritional value but is high in nitrogen, making products with it appear higher in protein. Suppliers trying to cut costs are believed to have added it to watered-down milk to cover up the resulting protein deficiency.
The scandal is the latest in a series of problems with tainted products made in China. The crisis has raised doubts about the effectiveness of tighter controls China promised after a series of food safety scares in recent years over contaminated seafood, toothpaste and a pet food ingredient tainted with melamine.
Dairy products are not part of the traditional Chinese diet, but the country's economic growth and the increased availability of refrigeration have brought about a wide range of products, with flavored milk and sweetened yogurts among the most popular.
Though per capita consumption of dairy products in China is still low at 1.5 ounces per day, increasingly affluent Chinese consumers are paying more attention to their health and view milk as highly nutritious, particularly for children.
While most of the suspect dairy products are only sold domestically, two of the companies involved exported baby formula to five countries in Asia and Africa. Other products such as milk, yogurt and ice cream went to Hong Kong.
Two distributors said Friday that Sanlu ordered them to pull its baby formula off store shelves in early July, weeks before the company went public with the melamine contamination.
The statements by the distributors in Hebei province, where Sanlu is headquartered, raise further questions about when the company and government knew milk powder being fed to babies was tainted with a banned chemical.
A New Zealand stakeholder in Sanlu has said it was told before the start of the Beijing Olympics on Aug. 8 that there was a problem. The dairy farmers' group Fonterra, which owns 43 percent of Sanlu Group, told the New Zealand government, which informed Chinese officials.
The public was not told until Sept. 11 that the powder, used in baby formula and other products, was laced with melamine.
"We were asked by Sanlu to take all their 2007 to July 2008 baby powder off the shelves in early July" and replace it with new powder, said one of the distributors, Zhang Youqiang.
"Then things got weird. In early August, they came to us again and said all the new Sanlu baby milk powder we had just put on the shelves" did not meet a certain government standard unrelated to product quality, said Zhang, who declined to give his company name for fear of offending Sanlu. He said it was not clear what the standard was that had not been met.
Zhang said he now has warehouses full of contaminated milk powder and is trying to get refunds from Sanlu.
Another distributor, Liang Jianqiang, said he was also trying to get money from Sanlu. He also took Sanlu baby milk powder out of stores in July.
"They told me there would be a new formula that's better quality. They did this again in August and September," he said. Liang also did not want to disclose the name of his company.
Phone calls to Sanlu rang unanswered Friday and its Web site was not working. China's quality watchdog did not respond after asking to be sent a fax with questions.
The quality watchdog said it intended to "severely punish those who are responsible," according to a notice posted on the agency's Web site. It said all the batches that tested positive were being recalled.