Friday, September 19, 2008

How was Chinese baby formula chemically tainted?

BEIJING (AP) — China's unfolding scandal involving tainted baby formula has reawakened fears over product safety amid rapid economic growth and lax regulation across the sprawling nation of 1.3 billion people.

By Thursday, health officials reported four deaths tied to formula tainted with the industrial chemical melamine, while the number of sickened babies had risen to 6,244. More than 1,300 babies, mostly newborns, remain hospitalized, with 158 suffering from acute kidney failure.

Some questions consumers may be asking:

Q. What is melamine and why was it added to raw milk?

A. Melamine is an industrial chemical used in plastics, fertilizer, flame retardant clothing, dyes, glue and many other household items. Derived from coal, it is about 66 percent nitrogen. It is believed to have been added to the milk to increase apparent protein levels. Most tests for protein test nitrogen levels, so its chemical structure is able to fool the instruments. Some dairies watered down their milk, so extra protein readouts were needed to keep from being discovered.

Q. How does melamine harm those who ingest it?

A. Melamine can cause kidney stones and lead to renal failure in infants. It was blamed for the deaths last year of dogs and cats fed pet food containing tainted Chinese ingredients. U.S. scientists hypothesized it combined with another chemical, cyanuric acid, to cause kidney failure in the animals.

Q. When was latest outbreak detected and how did companies and officials respond?

A. The company at the heart of the scandal is Sanlu Group Co., which is 43 percent owned by New Zealand's Fonterra. Sanlu received complaints as early as March and company tests in August found the milk powder contained melamine. However, no recall was ordered until Sept. 11, after New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark informed officials in Beijing of the problem. Some have speculated that Sanlu held off on taking action to avoid a national embarrassment during August's Beijing Olympic, although no one in the company has confirmed that.

Q. Were any of the milk products exported to the United States?

A. No, although Hong Kong regulators recalled milk, yogurt, ice cream and other products made by China's Yili Industrial Group Co. after melamine was found in eight of 30 sample products tested by regulators. Other companies, Guangdong-based Yashili and Qingdao-based Suncare, have recalled tainted milk powder that was exported to Bangladesh, Yemen, Gabon, Burundi and Myanmar.

Q. What are the long-term plans to deal with the problem?

A. Overseas regulators stepped up testing for melamine following last year's pet food recall. U.S. authorities meanwhile have been working with Chinese regulators to boost their own system of inspections and testing, although those stricter rules have yet to be consolidated at the grass roots. No announcements have been made concerning tighter controls over Chinese melamine production and distribution.

source: How was Chinese baby formula chemically tainted?
The Associated Press - 38 minutes ago