BEIJING Chinese investigators have uncovered more dairy products laced with a toxic chemical, state media reported Tuesday, as investigators included exported goods in an expanding probe triggered by the deaths of two infants who drank tainted baby formula.
State broadcaster CCTV reported on its Tuesday evening newscast that a nationwide inspection of the 175 companies producing baby milk powder showed that 22 of them had traces of the industrial chemical melamine in their products. One company, based in the southern province of Guangdong, exported its products abroad to Bangladesh, Yemen, and Burma, CCTV said.
Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, a supermarket chain was pulling from its shelves ice cream and other products produced by the Shanghai-based Yili AB Foods after a test of one sample detected melamine, the official Xinhua News Agency said.
The company at the heart of the widening food scandal, Sanlu Group Co., has apologized for the melamine-tainted milk powder. The company says suppliers who provided them with raw milk apparently added the chemical, normally used in plastics, to make the milk seem higher in protein.
China's Health Ministry says Sanlu milk powder has sickened at least 1,200 children, with most suffering kidney stones.
Zhang Zhenling, Sanlu's vice president, apologized Monday but did not explain why the company took so long to inform the public about the contamination despite receiving complaints as early as March and having tests confirm the presence of the chemical in early August.
The company went public with the information after its New Zealand stakeholder told the New Zealand government, which then informed the Chinese government.
"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," Zhang said, reading from a prepared statement.
Chinese officials have defended their response but blamed Sanlu Group for delays in warning the public. Officials say they were not alerted until last Monday.
Details of the children's deaths show the problem appeared to have gone undetected for months. The first victim, a five-month-old boy from the western city of Lanzhou, died May 1, ministry officials said. The second, an eight-month-old girl also from Lanzhou, died July 22.
The scandal is an embarrassing failure for China's product safety system, which was overhauled to restore consumer confidence and preserve export markets after a string of recalls and warnings abroad over tainted toothpaste, faulty tires and other goods.
It is also the second major case in recent years involving baby formula. In 2004, more than 200 Chinese infants suffered malnutrition and at least 12 died after being fed phony formula that contained no nutrients.
The discovery of the tainted milk is especially damaging because Sanlu Group Co. is China's biggest producer of powdered milk and such large companies are expected to act as industry role models for safety and quality.
Shoddy and fake goods are common in China, and infants, hospital patients and others have been killed or injured by tainted or fake milk, medicines, liquor and other products.
Vice Health Minister Ma Xiaowei told reporters Monday that 1,253 infants have so far been sickened mainly after developing kidney stones. Of those, 913 of the infants were only slightly affected, while 340 remained hospitalized and 53 cases were considered especially severe, he said.
Chinese police said they arrested two more milk suppliers from northern Hebei province late Monday.
In total, four men have been arrested, spokesman Shi Guizhong with the Hebei Provincial Security Department was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua News Agency. The newly arrested dealers were only identified by their surnames as Ma, 40, and Zhao, 43.
Earlier, police said they had arrested two brothers, surnamed Geng, who ran a milk collection center in Hebei province and are accused of adding melamine, Xinhua said. They sold about three tons of contaminated milk a day, the report said.
None of the Sanlu milk powder was exported to Europe or the United States, although the company is 43 percent owned by a New Zealand dairy farmers' cooperative, Fonterra.
Fonterra, the world's biggest milk trader, says it urged Sanlu to recall the product as early as Aug. 2. Sanlu did not order a recall until last Thursday, after the New Zealand government took up the issue with China.