China Melamine Toll RisesDec 2, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP
China’s Health Ministry is reporting that six—not the originally reported three—babies may have died after ingesting melamine-tainted milk powder, the Associated Press (AP) is reporting. Official figures have long claimed only three deaths and 50,000 illnesses were linked to the widespread contamination. But according to the AP, the China Health Ministry just released a statement confirming that 294,000 infants fell ill with urinary disturbances, including kidney stones, as a result of the tainting. The International Herald Tribune said the Health Ministry’s statement was reported by the official Chinese news agency—Xinhua—which cited ministry and provincial health department experts.
According to the AP, the Ministry neither provided additional information nor clarified if the three originally reported deaths were included or excluded in the current figures. The BBC is reporting that more than 850 children are still being treated in hospitals, with no less that 150 children suffering from serious, kidney-related illnesses.
The AP pointed out that this recent tainted milk scandal is China’s worst yet, causing a sharp decline in Chinese dairy exports. The scandal led to widespread, international recalls and prompted authorities in China to implement an overhaul of that country’s dairy industry, said the AP. The overhaul revealed that melamine tainting was much more widespread than originally realized, and melamine was also discovered in animal feed following an earlier discovery that the toxic, industrial chemical was showing up in eggs, the AP said.
Melamine is an industrial chemical used in the production of fire retardants, fertilizers, and plastics. Because of its high nitrogen levels, it can create the false appearance of high protein levels in food and is known to have been added to diluted milk to falsely raise its protein levels. In sufficient quantities, ingesting melamine can cause kidney problems, including kidney stones and kidney failure, and in the case of at least six children, death.
The melamine scandal was first reported early this fall, said the AP; however, China’s government confirmed that the Shijiazhuang Sanlu Group Co., a dairy firm and key participant in the melamine scandal, knew last year that its products were tainted and also was aware that company and local officials had been involved in a cover-up.
The BBC has reported that China’s dairy exports dropped by 92 percent based on a “year-on-year” report in October. Also, the BBC discussed the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) implementation of an import alert, in which the agency held shipments of a variety of foods from China until inspections and certifications could be conducted said the International Health Tribune.
The International Herald Tribune also noted that the State Council—China's cabinet—ordered new regulations be implemented that broadly covered all steps in the dairy process, including from breeding to sales. As part of the move, China’s government said it strengthened its food product inspections, but many remain doubtful, reports the International Health Tribune.