Chinese state television reported yesterday that an industrial contaminant was found in samples from more than 20 companies that manufacture baby milk powder. One of these companies exported its formula to Bangladesh, Myanmar and Yemen, according to the Associated Press; tainted powder may also have entered Gabon and Burundi. Chinese officials launched a probe of 175 baby-formula makers last week, after more than 6,000 babies fed the stuff became ill and three infants died.
The Food and Drug Administration says it's unlikely that any of the poisoned baby formula is on U.S. stores shelves. "There is no known threat of contamination in infant formula manufactured by companies that have met the requirements to sell infant formula in the United States," it said in a statement. But the agency added that officials were investigating further to make sure that it was not being sold in " specialty markets which serve [the U.S.'s] Asian community."
The Chinese government dispatched 5,000 inspectors to check the safety of dairy products nationwide, the BBC reports. The country's cabinet in a statement blamed the incident on "chaotic industry conditions and loopholes in the supervision and management of the industry."
The toxic substance: melamine, which was found in pet food (exported to the U.S. and Canada from China last year) that sickened thousands and killed hundreds of dogs and cats that ate it. Melamine is a nitrogen-based compound used in industrial and commercial plastics. The chemical can cause kidney damage; according to the London-based Telegraph, 160 babies are now suffering from acute kidney failure.
The first company found to have contaminated baby formula, Sanlu Group Co., says that one of its raw milk suppliers apparently used the chemical to give the product an artificially high protein content.
In a statement read to the press on Monday, Sanlu vice president Zhang Zhenling said, "The serious safety accident of the Sanlu formula milk powder for infants has caused severe harm to many sickened babies and their families. We feel really sad about this."
Reports say officials discovered last Monday that Sanlu first found melamine in its powder in early-August, some five months after consumers began complaining. (The first recognized victim of the contaminated milk, a five-month-old boy, died on May 1.) A Forbes.com report says the government may have covered up the scandal to avoid bad press during last month's Olympic games.
According to Xinhua, China's state news agency, the probe may turn up tainted products other than milk powder. A Hong Kong-based supermarket chain pulled everything made by Yili AB Foods of Shanghai—including ice cream--when melamine was found in one of its product samples.
The BBC reported that Chinese Health Minister Gao Qiang said the contaminated milk from Sanlu had only been distributed in China and Hong Kong. Six people have been arrested and at least 20 more are being questioned in connection with the poisonings.
(Credit: iStockphoto/Donna Coleman)