China milk scandal claims victim outside mainland

A child receives an ultrasonic inspection for kidney stones at a children's hospital in Chengdu, in southwest China's Sichuan province Friday, Sept. 19, 2008. Thousands of worried parents have filled hospitals, many hovering over sons and daughters hooked to IV drips after drinking milk powder tainted with melamine, a toxic industrial chemical that can cause kidney stones and lead to kidney failure. Some 1,300 babies, mostly newborns, remain hospitalized, with 158 suffering from acute kidney failure. (AP Photo/Color China Photo) ** CHINA OUT **
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BEIJING (AP) -- A Hong Kong toddler has developed a kidney stone after drinking Chinese milk - the first reported victim outside the mainland affected by a widening scandal over a toxic chemical found in baby formula and other Chinese dairy products.

More than 6,200 infants have become sick and four babies have died in China after being fed baby formula laced with melamine, a banned industrial chemical.

No illnesses had been reported elsewhere until the Hong Kong government said late Saturday that a 3-year-old girl was diagnosed with a kidney stone after drinking milk produced by the Chinese dairy Yili that contained melamine.

The Hong Kong government also announced Sunday that tests found melamine in Chinese-made Nestle brand milk.

Since the problem of tainted milk products became public knowledge less than two weeks ago, the crisis has spread to include almost all of China's biggest dairy companies. Their products have been pulled from stores around the country, and in other places such as the self-governing Chinese territories of Hong Kong and Macau. Starbucks stopped offering milk in its 300 outlets in China.

Taiwanese company King Car Co. announced it has recalled packs of its Mr. Brown instant coffee and milk tea containing contaminated milk powder imported from China.

Japan and Singapore have recalled Chinese-made dairy products, and the governments of Malaysia and Brunei announced bans on milk products from China.

A top official with the World Health Organization said Sunday that delays in releasing critical information about contaminated Chinese milk had hampered Beijing's ability to rapidly deal with the problem and warn consumers.

Shigeru Omi, the WHO's head of Western Pacific operations, told reporters at a press conference in Manila that "some people withheld the information for some time," but he did not give specifics.

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 crisis as government tests found that one-fifth of the companies producing baby milk powder had melamine in their products.

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.

Melamine is used in making plastics and 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 hurt by rising costs for feed, fuel and labor.

Hong Kong's government said melamine was found in Nestle's Dairy Farm brand pure milk for catering use. It said the milk was made by Nestle's division in the Chinese coastal city Qingdao.

Nestle said in a statement last Wednesday that none of its infant formula and milk powder products contained melamine. "Nestle can hence assure its ... customers that its products are safe for consumption," the statement said. It made no mention of other dairy products, such as pure milk.

Nestle's Hong Kong office did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment. Calls after work hours to its Beijing office and Beijing hot line went unanswered.

The parents of the Hong Kong girl diagnosed with a kidney stone took her for a precautionary checkup because she had been drinking Yili milk daily for the past 15 months. Yili Industrial Group Co. is one of 22 companies whose milk and dairy products were recalled after batches of their products were found to contain melamine.

The toddler was in good condition after receiving medical treatment and had been discharged from the hospital, the government said.

China's communist leadership has launched high-profile efforts to show it is on top of the crisis, with Premier Wen Jiabao appearing on state-run television Sunday to say diary companies had to show more "social responsibility."

Wen was shown visiting a Beijing hospital where children were having health checks. He also stopped at a supermarket to look at dairy products.

"What we need to do now is to ensure that nothing like this happens in the future, not only in dairy products but in all food," Wen 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 ingredients 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.

Many of the largest companies whose products have been recalled, such as 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.


Associated Press reporter Min Lee in Hong Kong contributed to this report.

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