BEIJING The European Union banned imports of baby food containing Chinese milk Thursday as a toxic chemical that was illegally added to China's dairy supplies turned up in candy and other Chinese-made goods that were quickly pulled from stores worldwide.
The 27-nation EU adds to the growing list of countries that have banned or recalled Chinese dairy products because of the contamination, which has killed four Chinese babies and sickened 54,000. In addition to the ban, the European Commission called for more checks on other Chinese food imports.
Outside Shanghai, three zoo babies were found to have developed kidney stones after being nursed with tainted milk powder for more than a year. A lion cub and two baby orangutans were sickened after drinking infant formula made by the Sanlu Group Co., said Zhang Xu, a veterinarian with the Hangzhou Zhangxu Animal Hospital.
Sanlu is at the center of the tainted milk crisis.
Chinese baby formula contaminated with melamine has been blamed for the deaths and illnesses in China. Health experts say ingesting a small amount of the chemical poses no danger, but melamine used to make plastics and fertilizer can cause kidney stones and lead to kidney failure. Infants are particularly vulnerable.
In the southern Chinese territory of Macau, authorities found melamine in samples of a popular chocolate-filled Koala-shaped cookie made by Lotte China Foods Co. Tests found melamine in the cookies were at levels 24 times the safety limit, the Macau government reported. The company is a member of Tokyo-based conglomerate Lotte Group.
All European Union imports of products containing more than 15 percent of milk powder will have to be tested under the new rules due to come into force today..
Food safety experts in the EU, which imports about 21,500 tons of Chinese confectionary products, said there is only a limited risk in Europe from the food imports. But the European Commission says it is acting as a precaution in the face of the growing health scare.
The World Health Organization and UNICEF, the U.N. Children's Fund, issued a joint statement Thursday expressing concern about the crisis.
"Whilst any attempt to deceive the public in the area of food production and marketing is unacceptable, deliberate contamination of foods intended for consumption by vulnerable infants and young children is particularly deplorable," the statement said.
Melamine has been found in infant formula and other milk products from 22 Chinese dairy companies. Suppliers trying to cut costs are believed to have added it to watered-down milk because its high nitrogen content masks the resulting protein deficiency.
"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," the U.N. statement said.
The statement also called for more awareness of the benefits of breast-feeding. That has become less common in recent years in China as working mothers switched to powdered baby formula.
Melamine-tainted products has turned up in an increasing number of Chinese-made exports abroad from candies to yogurt to rice balls.
In China, the problem has spread to a popular brand of candy, with authorities pulling White Rabbit candy from shelves in Shanghai and the southern province of Hainan.
White Rabbit, which has been recalled already in Singapore, Britain, Australia and New Zealand, was found to contain "unsatisfactory" levels of melamine more than six times the legal limit in a test of 67 dairy products, according to the Hong Kong government's Center for Food Safety.
Surinamese health authorities on Thursday ordered food markets across the South American country to pull the popular Chinese-made candy from their shelves. A day earlier, Suriname banned imports of Chinese dairy products and stepped-up safety inspections of food imports from Southeast Asia.
The candy is still on sale in some stores in Beijing, and there has been no public announcement of a nationwide recall from China's safety watchdog. A woman who works at the propaganda department of the quality body, the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, said that she did not know of White Rabbit candy being recalled in China. She did not give her name, as is common with officials in China.
The watchdog issued a recall list on Sept. 16 for 69 batches of milk powder made by 22 companies. The only other recall list was on Sept. 19 for liquid milk.
China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said China wants to work with food safety authorities of other countries over concerns about its dairy products, and China's state broadcaster CCTV said Thursday there have been no positive tests of melamine on major brands of milk, yogurt and other liquid dairy products after Sept. 14.
The Chinese Ministry of Agriculture said that 29 provincial areas nationwide had set up working groups to regulate the dairy product market.
The Shanghai government has urged a subsidiary of Bright Food Group to stop the sale of White Rabbit candy one of the best-known candies in China and pull the product off the shelves, and to recall those for export that are likely to have problems, it said.
The subsidiary, Guan Sheng Yuan, has been making White Rabbit candies for almost 50 years, with exports to Southeast Asia and Chinese communities overseas.
"The inspection is ongoing and we are waiting for the results," Xu Yongxin, a public affairs official for Bright Food Group Co, which makes the candy, said Thursday.