New tests: Chinese milk melamine-free

South Korean officials recall M&M's and Snickers, as China's production standards improve.

Eye Press/AP
Melamine-free: Chinese laboratory technicians test samples of Chinese milk products. Chinese officials said on Sunday that all samples were melamine-free.

China's widening poisoned milk scandal ensnared some of the world's top food brands Monday, as South Korean authorities recalled Chinese-made M&M's, Snickers bars, and Ritz crackers.

The products were among 10 processed foods exported from China that were found to contain traces of melamine, the toxic chemical used to adulterate powdered milk that has killed four babies in China and sickened 54,000 others.

As officials worldwide continue to check for tainted Chinese milk products, there are signs that production safety in China is improving. New government tests show that the latest batches of milk are melamine-free. Meanwhile, victims of the contaminated dairy products are beginning to take legal action.

Although the melamine levels in the goods on sale in South Korea "do not pose a big health threat ... we will take the necessary measures to ensure food safety," the South Korean Food and Drug Administration said.

In Beijing, meanwhile, the new head of the Chinese government's quality watchdog pledged "substantial changes in the production and distribution of dairy products."

Wang Yong, who became head of the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine last month after his predecessor was fired when the melamine scandal broke, told Xinhua, the official news agency, that his staff had dispatched 1,644 inspection teams to every dairy factory in the country.

The latest round of tests found that all 340 batches of milk powder made in the past three weeks and submitted for analysis were melamine-free, the government watchdog announced Sunday.

Beijing's bid to restore consumer confidence in Chinese dairy products has included regular announcements of arrests as police investigate how melamine, an industrial chemical used in the manufacture of plastics and fertilizer, found its way into baby formula and other milk products made by Sanlu and 20 other dairy companies.

Six people suspected of clandestinely producing and selling melamine were detained in Inner Mongolia, China's largest dairy center, the police there said Sunday. That brought the number of people being held in connection with the scandal to 42.

They range from Tian Wenhua, general manager and chairwoman of Sanlu, to small-dairy farmers and managers of local milk collection centers suspected of adding melamine to diluted milk in order to falsify protein readings.

That milk has found its way into a wide range of products that ended up on sale throughout the world. The US Food and Drug Administration has found melamine in Chinese-made candies and yogurt on sale in America, the European Union has banned the sale of Chinese baby food, Thailand is returning 122 tons of milk powder to China, and Australia has suspended imports of a Japanese brand of milk tea made in China.

Most of the melamine-tainted products found abroad have contained relatively small traces of the toxic chemical, compared with the milk powder on which hundreds of thousands of Chinese babies fed.

A batch of Cadbury's chocolate in Hong Kong, for example, was found to contain 56 parts per million of melamine – 20 times the level permitted in Hong Kong. The candy was withdrawn from sale, but by comparison the tainted Sanlu's baby formula contained 1,000 times the level permitted in Hong Kong.

Distressed Chinese parents, meanwhile, are finding that hospitals do not always abide by the government's pledge to provide free treatment for all babies suffering from kidney problems as a result of drinking adulterated milk.

Many local authorities are interpreting that promise very narrowly, prompting one family to sue Sanlu for $22,000 to cover medical costs they had incurred since their baby first had problems in June. The hospital where the baby is being treated is offering care free of charge only to children diagnosed after Sept. 12th, when news of the scandal first surfaced.

It is not yet clear, however, whether the court will accept the suit, according to Ji Cheng, one of the lawyers representing the family. "We have brought the case and we cannot say anything until we get information from the court," Mr. Ji says.

Other lawyers seeking to assist aggrieved parents have reported pressure from local authorities to abandon their pro bono efforts. Elsewhere, however, volunteer lawyers say their regional governments are seeking to coordinate an orderly legal response to the crisis.

"They wanted to discuss with me how to organize a lawyers' group to cope with the case," Niu Shouquiang, a volunteer lawyer working with Sanlu victims, says of a phone call he received recently from the provincial Justice Department in Hebei. "They don't want to see people go petitioning" to higher levels of government in a publicly embarrassing way, he adds.

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