2 Dec 2008

China raises death estimate from tainted milk to six

10:24 pm on 2 December 2008

China has lifted to six the number of babies believed killed from drinking toxic milk formula and raised the number affected to 294,000, months after a scare that has battered confidence among local and foreign consumers.

The Health Ministry had until now said four infants died from kidney stones and other complications after consuming milk powder tainted with melamine, an industrial compound found in plastics used to cheat quality inspections.

A ministry report also said that 294,000 children had experienced "urinary system abnormalities" from consuming Sanlu-brand milk powder and a handful of other producers' brands, a huge discrepancy from previous counts limited to children treated in hospitals.

Previous government reports had said more than 50,000 children had been hospitalised.

Chinese media first reported in September that babies had fallen ill from the formula. But officials have since acknowledged that the Sanlu Group, the main source of the tainted milk, and officials hid the problem for many months.

Sanlu is 43% owned by New Zealand dairy co-operative Fonterra.

The scandal prompted bans and extra checks on Chinese milk and food products in dozens of export markets. Tests revealed it in Chinese-made products ranging from chocolate bars to yoghurt.

Last year, melamine was found in China-made pet food ingredients that killed pets in the United States.

China's Xinhua state news agency reported in October that 75,000 infants had consumed milk formula tainted with melamine before the scandal broke. Figures in local media reports compiled by Reuters in the same month suggested that more than 90,000 children had been affected.

The Health Ministry did not explain the delay in reporting the figure totalling affected cases. It said 51,900 children were taken to hospital, with 861 still admitted and 154 categorised as "severe" sufferers.

The health scare had abated, the ministry said, with the number of children examined and diagnosed with problems linked to tainted milk "clearly falling every day".

The melamine scandal rocked faith in Chinese-made products, following a four-month campaign to bolster the country's food safety regime in the wake of a raft of quality scandals last year.

The US in November issued an import alert for Chinese-made food products, calling for foods to be stopped at the border unless importers can certify that they are either free of dairy goods or free of melamine.