China's tainted milk scandal spiralled into uncharted territory Monday as authorities said nearly 53 000 children had been sickened and more countries moved to ban or recall Chinese dairy imports.
In a dramatic update of previous figures, the health ministry said a total of 52 857 children were taken to hospital after drinking milk thought to have been contaminated by the industrial chemical melamine.
Most had "basically recovered" but 12 892 of them remained in hospital, a health ministry official said.
Joining a clutch of other countries, Taiwan said it was banning all Chinese milk products with immediate notice, regardless of brand, because of consumer concerns.
"There is no timeframe for the ban," said Wang Chih-chao, an official with the Department of Health, but said milk products already on the shelves after passing safety tests would not be removed. Meanwhile retailers in Hong Kong said they were pulling more milk products off their shelves after samples tested positive for melamine.
Melamine in milk leads to mass recalls
Melamine, normally used in making plastics, was first found in infant milk formula in Chinese markets but has since been detected in a range of products with dairy ingredients both in China and abroad.
The discovery, the latest in a series of scandals to tarnish the reputation of Chinese products, has led to mass recalls and a Chinese government campaign to tighten quality inspections across the dairy sector.
Three children have died and 104 are still in serious condition, the health ministry said, with symptoms including kidney stones. A fourth child was also reported dead by authorities in Xinjiang province but has not been added to the national figure.
The scandal stems from the practice of adding melamine to watered-down milk to give it the appearance of higher protein levels. A host of countries - Bangladesh, Brunei, Burundi, Japan, Gabon, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore and Tanzania - have barred Chinese milk products or taken some other form of action to curb consumption.
Hong Kong's government said a three-year-old girl developed a kidney stone after drinking the tainted milk - believed to be the first such case outside mainland China. The girl has since left hospital and is in good condition, it added.
The situation has become a 'crisis'
Major retailers in Hong Kong were emptying shelves of milk powder products from Nestle, plastic-bottled Dutch Lady milk and canned Mr Brown coffee.
Many Hong Kong parents took the day off work Monday to have their children checked at a hospital but were told they had to wait up to three days because of the queue, local broadcaster Cable TV reported.
"It has become a crisis," said Gabriel Choi, a kidney specialist and former president of the Hong Kong Medical Association. Swiss food giant Nestle said it was "confident" its products in China were safe and that none had been adulterated with melamine.
The Centre for Food Safety, a Hong Kong government body, said it had found melamine in a Nestle Dairy Farm pure milk sample from north-eastern China. Singapore has also found melamine in a Chinese-made milk candy, officials there said, while across China, supermarkets and shops have been pulling milk and a wide range of other dairy products off their shelves.
More than 80% of affected children are aged under two, the Chinese health ministry said.
Scam 'has been going on for years'
The melamine scandal first came to light two weeks ago in state-controlled media, but some press reports say the scam had been going on for years.
Shigeru Omi, Western Pacific director for the UN World Health Organisation, raised concerns the health risks were not reported earlier by China.
China has been hit by a wave of embarrassing scandals in recent years over dangerous products including food, drugs and toys, spoiling its manufacturing reputation. Melamine was found in pet food containing Chinese ingredients that killed cats and dogs in the United States last year. – (Sapa, September 2008)