(Editor's note: On Friday, Hong Kong authorities said melamine has been found in crackers and baby cereal.)
(CNSNews.com) – China’s deepening tainted dairy scandal took another turn Friday as a leading candy maker announced it was stopping sales inside the country, following reports that the product had tested positive for melamine in other countries.
Amid growing suspicions of a high level cover-up, the World Health Organization said the incident had been aggravated by delays in reporting the problem, the result of “probably a combination of ignorance and deliberate failure to report.”
“If information had been reported as soon it was learned, we would not have seen an incident of this scale,” WHO China representative Hans Troedsson told reporters in Beijing.
Four babies have died and more than 50,000 fallen ill as a result of infant milk formula contamination with melamine. Traces of the chemical, which is used to make plastic and fertilizer and can cause kidney problems, have been found in liquid milk, frozen yogurt desserts.
China Daily said Friday White Rabbit confectionery products, which contain powdered milk and are exported to more than 50 countries and regions, were the latest to come under scrutiny.
The Shanghai-based makers of the popular candy earlier recalled exports after authorities in Singapore reported melamine contamination, and on Friday said domestic sales were being suspended.
The Xinhua news agency quoted company’s vice-manager, Ge Junjie, as saying that tests being carried out had yet to produce results, but that all sales had been stopped.
Dozens of countries around the world have ordered checks, recalls or bans on various Chinese products as a result of the scandal.
The only cases reported outside of China to date have been in Hong Kong, where five children fell ill after drinking tainted milk.
Troedsson said the WHO did not believe there would be many more deaths, and expressed the hope the crisis may have peaked.
“We might be starting to see the end of it, even if I don’t think we are yet at that level, because there is now vigorous testing, not only in China but in other countries.”
According to the WHO, melamine is illegally added to food products to inflate their apparent protein content.
“Because it is high in nitrogen, the addition of melamine to a food artificially increases the apparent protein content as measured with standard tests,” it says.
The scandal broke when the New Zealand government went public on Sept. 9. It had learned of the problem from Fonterra, the New Zealand dairy giant that is a partner of Chinese dairy company at the center of the incident, Sanlu.
According to an official investigation set up by China’s cabinet, the State Council, Sanlu first started receiving complaints last December, but only began carrying out tests in June, when it discovered the melamine contamination.
Sanlu waited until Aug. 2 before it reported the matter to authorities in Shijiazhuang, the northern city where the company is located.
Government and communist party officials in Shijiazhuang “said nothing to higher authorities” until Sept. 9, according to China Daily’s account of the probe’s findings. Two days later the company admitted the problem and recalled its products.
Several officials have resigned or been dismissed, including the communist party chief in Shijiazhuang and the head of the national quality control body. A number of people have also been arrested, state media have reported.
But suspicions persist that more senior officials may have urged a cover-up, anxious not to have anything disrupt Beijing’s hosting of the Olympic Games, which began on Aug. 8.
“There is widespread speculation that central authorities were complicit in the cover-up,” Jamestown Foundation senior fellow Willy Wo-Lap Lam wrote this week. He said, “propaganda officials had in the run-up to the Olympics asked the media as well as regional officials to minimize ‘bad news’ so as not to spoil the gala atmosphere of the Games.”
In New York City for the U.N. General Assembly session, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao pledged that China would “draw a lesson” from the scandal and use the opportunity to overhaul safety controls and improve business ethics
Four years ago, Wen promised greater transparency after Beijing covered up an outbreak of SARS, a flu-like disease that originated in southern China and spread across Asia and as far as Canada, killing more than 770 people.
After months of secrecy, Beijing finally admitted the extent of the crisis, apologized for the cover-up and instituted stricter health measures.
Similar pledges were made after other food safety scares, including one involving melamine-laced pet food blamed for renal failure and deaths of dogs and cats in the U.S. last year, and leading to the recall of at least 100 pet food brands.
Early this year, at least 10 people fell sick in Japan after eating frozen meat dumplings imported from China. Japanese health officials said they contained traces of pesticide.
In a joint statement Thursday, the WHO and the U.N. Children’s Fund Unicef , called the deliberate contamination of food for infants and young children “particularly deplorable.”
They said they were confident that authorities were taking swift and firm action to investigate.
“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.”