Food recalls expanded in Europe and Asia on Thursday as an industrial chemical linked to the deaths of four babies turned up in candies and other Chinese-made products that were quickly pulled from store shelves in China and abroad.
More than a dozen countries have banned or recalled Chinese dairy products. The European Commission on Thursday proposed banning any baby food from China that contain traces of milk and called for tighter checks on other Chinese food products.
Chinese baby formula tainted with melamine has been blamed for the deaths of four infants in China and the illnesses of 54,000 babies there. Health experts say ingesting a small amount of the chemical poses no danger, but melamine - used to make plastics and fertilizer - can cause kidney stones and lead to kidney failure. Infants are particularly vulnerable.
All imports of products containing more than 50 percent of milk powder will have to be tested under the new rules due to come into force Friday after talks among the EU's 27 member nations.
EU food safety experts said they have found only a limited risk in Europe from food imports from China. But the European Commission says it is acting as a precaution in the face of the growing health scare.
The World Health Organization and UNICEF, the U.N. Children's Fund, issued a joint statement Thursday expressing concern about the widening crisis.
"Whilst any attempt to deceive the public in the area of food production and marketing is unacceptable, deliberate contamination of foods intended for consumption by vulnerable infants and young children is particularly deplorable," the statement said.
Melamine has been found in infant formula and other milk products from 22 Chinese dairy companies. Suppliers trying to cut costs are believed to have added it to watered-down milk because its high nitrogen content masks the resulting protein deficiency.
"We also expect that following the investigation and in the context of the Chinese government's increasing attention to food safety, better regulation of foods for infants and young children will be enforced," the U.N. statement said.
The rest of the statement called for more awareness of the benefits of breastfeeding. That has become less common in recent years in China as busy mothers switched to powdered baby formula.
Melamine-tainted products has also turned up in an increasing number of Chinese-made exports abroad - from candies to yogurt to rice balls.
In China, the problem has spread to a popular brand of candy, with authorities pulling White Rabbit candy from shelves in Shanghai and the southern province of Hainan.
White Rabbit, which has been recalled already in Singapore, Britain, Australia and New Zealand, was found to contain "unsatisfactory" levels of melamine - more than six times the legal limit - in a test of 67 dairy products, according to the Hong Kong government's Center for Food Safety.
The candy is still on sale in some stores in Beijing, and there has been no public announcement of a nationwide recall from China's safety watchdog. A woman who works at the propaganda department of the quality body, the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, said that she did not know of White Rabbit candy being recalled in China. She did not give her name, as is common with officials in China.
The watchdog issued a recall list on Sept. 16 for 69 batches of milk powder made by 22 companies. The only other recall list was on Sept. 19 for liquid milk.
China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said China would like to work with food safety authorities of other countries over concerns about China's dairy products, and China's state broadcaster CCTV said Thursday there have been no positive tests of melamine on major brands of milk, yogurt and other liquid dairy products after Sept. 14.
The Chinese Ministry of Agriculture said that 29 provincial areas nationwide had set up special working groups to regulate the dairy product market.
The Shanghai government has urged a subsidiary of Bright Food Group to stop the sale of White Rabbit candy - one of the best-known candies in China - and pull them off the shelves, and to recall those for export that are likely to have problems, it said.
The subsidiary, Guan Sheng Yuan, has been making White Rabbit candies for almost 50 years, with exports to Southeast Asia and Chinese communities overseas.
"The inspection is ongoing and we are waiting for the results," Xu Yongxin, a public affairs official for Bright Food Group Co, which makes the candy, said by phone Thursday.
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