BEIJING - China's leaders scrambled Saturday to contain public dismay over widespread contamination of milk supplies, castigating local officials for negligence while moving to tamp down criticism of the government's response.
Officials promised to keep stores supplied with clean milk and set up medical hot lines nationwide to help people cope with one of the worst product safety scandals in years.
Milk and dairy products from 22 companies have been recalled after batches tainted with the industrial chemical melamine sickened more than 6,200 children and left four infants dead from kidney failure.
"This has caused a very widespread scare in Chinese society, and there's a great deal of mistrust," said Jing Jun, a sociologist at Tsinghua University in Beijing. "People see this as a failure of the government. The companies here were not thoroughly inspected."
Trying to shore up public confidence, Premier Wen Jiabao told senior Communist Party members that official misconduct contributed to the milk contamination and earlier product scandals. He demanded they put public safety "at the top of the agenda."
"In some places, incidents of food and production safety have continuously arisen and seriously harmed people's lives and health," Wen said in remarks carried on state-run television. "The social impact is vile and the lesson profound."
In a show of concern, Wen's chief deputy made a highly publicized trip to a dairy region south of Beijing at the center of the scandal, visiting farms, shops and a hospital, where he urged "all-out efforts on medical treatment" for the sick.
The energetic response underscored the deep challenge the crisis poses for the communist leadership. The government has staked its legitimacy in part on competent management of a rapidly developing society, a reputation it hoped would be burnished by last month's lavish, well-run Beijing Olympics.
But the post-Olympic accolades have been pushed aside, and the scandal is again baring widespread public skepticism about the government's abilities to get lower level officials to enforce policies and over cover-ups of problems.
Recalls of Chinese-made dairy products widened Saturday to Japan, which followed the lead of Singapore, while more products were recalled in the self-governing Chinese territories of Hong Kong and Macau. Starbucks stopped offering milk in its 300 outlets in China.
In the 10 days since the government revealed that Shijiazhuang Sanlu Group Co. sold tainted milk powder and infant formula, sketchy details have exposed one local government cover-up as well as the sale of contaminated milk by China's biggest dairies, many of them state-owned.
"Since this Sanlu incident arose, many people have a suspicion (naturally it's an old suspicion): If we can successfully hold a highly complex Olympics, how can we not even manage the quality of milk?" Mo Zhixu, a liberal-minded author, wrote in his online journal.
Seeking to rein in criticism, propaganda officials ordered newspapers, TV stations and Web sites to mainly use reports from the government's official Xinhua News Agency, news employees at two publications reported.
An editor said the government is allowing expressions of outrage at the milk scandal, but prohibited accusations that such problems might be systemic. The editor, and a reporter at the second publication, asked not to be identified for fear of retribution from authorities.
One Web log post later deleted from several Internet sites purported to be from the daughter of the recently fired chairwoman of the Sanlu dairy.
The blogger, identified as Wu Qing, said her mother informed Shijiazhuang city officials in early August about the melamine-tainted milk powder only to be rebuffed because the Olympics and the city's stop on the torch relay loomed.
"The government's words said 'first guarantee the sacred torch relay and the rest can be put off until later,'" the post said.
Food and product safety scandals have been a feature of Chinese life. Only last year, the government promised to overhaul inspection procedures after exports of medicines, toys, pet food and other products killed and sickened people and pets in North and South America.
The chemical in the dangerous pet food was the same as in the milk scandal — melamine.
Used in making plastics, melamine is high in nitrogen, which registers as protein in tests of milk. Though health experts believe ingesting minute amounts poses no danger, melamine can cause kidney stones, which can lead to kidney failure. Infants are particularly vulnerable.
Some of the farmers who sell milk to Chinese food companies are thought to have used melamine to disguise watered-down milk and fatten profit margins thinned by rising costs for feed, fuel and labor.
Many of the largest companies whose products have been recalled, like Yili Industrial Group Co. and Mengniu Dairy Group Co., did not have government inspections before the problem became public. The government scrapped that exemption this past week.
"This is not just a single event. It's because of a number of companies and inspectors. This is where the seriousness arises," said Jing, the sociologist. "In the U.S., you have problems too, but that's different. The government system has failed."