Chinese authorities said Wednesday they were investigating how eggs came to be contaminated with the same industrial chemical at the center of a milk scandal that sickened thousands of babies, as more tainted eggs turned up in Hong Kong and the mainland.
The move comes after a brand of chicken eggs produced by China's leading egg processor Dalian Hanwei Enterprise Group were pulled from some stores in the country after Hong Kong food safety regulators found excessive levels of melamine in eggs from the company.
The widening food scandal has exposed the inability of Chinese authorities to keep the food production process clean of melamine, the chemical that sparked the recent dairy crisis, despite official vows to raise food safety standards.
Hanwei's Web site said that besides the domestic and Hong Kong markets, its egg products are exported to Japan and countries in Southeast Asia.
China's fresh eggs are mainly exported to the Chinese territories of Hong Kong and Macau, while processed egg products are also sold to Japan and the U.S., according to a February egg market report on the Agriculture Ministry's Web site, the latest available report.
The government of Dalian, the northeastern port city where Hanwei is based, said in a notice dated Wednesday that it was first alerted to the problem of melamine-tainted eggs more than a month ago - but it did not explain the apparent delay in publicly reporting the problem.
The notice said that Dalian authorities were notified Sept. 27 of tests by the customs bureau of Liaoning province that had found melamine in a batch of export-bound eggs produced by Hanwei.
The city government said it immediately ordered Hanwei to recall the eggs deemed "problematic" and temporarily halt its egg exports. By Oct. 5, seven shipping containers that had reached Hong Kong carrying Hanwei's eggs had been recalled, while two other containers that stayed in Hong Kong were sealed off.
The recalled eggs were destroyed to prevent them from entering the domestic market, the notice said, while further tests on other batches of eggs from the company did not detect melamine.
The Hong Kong government said late Tuesday that tests on a second batch of eggs, processed by Jingshan Pengchang Agricultural Product Co. of China's central Hubei province, also found an excessive amount of melamine.
Pan Fengxia, the company's manager, said a retailer had notified her of the Hong Kong test result and said she was sending another sample of eggs to be tested by the Hubei provincial food safety authority.
The Hong Kong eggs from Jingshan contained melamine with a concentration of 2.9 parts per million. The legal limit for melamine in foodstuffs in Hong Kong is 2.5 parts per million.
The Hong Kong-tested Hanwei eggs contained 4.7 parts per million of melamine.
Authorities in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou, meanwhile, recalled a brand of eggs produced by Green Living Beings Development Center based in northern Shanxi province, the official Xinhua News Agency said. Phone calls to the company and to Hangzhou government offices rang unanswered Wednesday.
It remains unclear what eating melamine-tainted eggs will do to humans, but in the recent milk products scandal, milk formula heavily contaminated with the chemical caused kidney stones in babies. It was blamed for sickening 54,000 children and linked to the deaths of four infants.
More than 3,600 children remain sick, health officials say.
It was unclear how the chemical got into eggs. But a Chinese agriculture official, Wang Zhicai, was quoted by the Beijing News newspaper Tuesday saying it was highly likely that melamine had been added to the feed given to the chickens that laid the eggs. Melamine is not an animal feed additive and is banned from being mixed in, Wang said.
Associated Press researchers Xi Yue and Yu Bing contributed to this report in Beijing.
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