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Heads start to roll in milk scandal

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Latest update : 2008-09-23

A top health official and some local officials have been sacked in China's toxic-milk scandal. To contain the damage, Beijing is pressuring the media not to report on the scandal and the justice system to avoid taking up lawsuits by victims.

Heads are starting to roll in China's scandal of milk tainted with melamine. After ten days of investigation and scores of arrests, China has accepted the resignation of Li Changjiang, the minister in charge of food and product quality in the country.

Li was a powerful official who had merged the health ministry and the food and drug administration.

The government has also admitted its failure to detect the problem early. Officials revealed that Sanlu, the original culprit in the scandal, had concealed the contamination from the central government for more than nine months. Some families had complained about their children falling sick after drinking the company's baby formula back in December 2007.

Other local officials have also been sacked, including the Communist Party chief in the city of Shijiazhuang, where Sanlu is based. The officials are accused of covering up the scandal.

All eyes are now on Sanlu, once one of the best-known and most-respected brands in the country and now seemingly the scapegoat in the case.

Almost 70 dairies are involved in the scandal and the latest offender appears to be the Swiss giant Nestle. Its products have been taken off the shelves in Hong Kong after officials in the territory found melamine in milk made by one of its China subsidiaries.

Beijing has ordered local media to stop independent investigations on the case and only reprint articles from the official Xinhua news agency. Some provincial authorities have also pressured lawyers not to defend victims of the scandal and directed the courts to reject such lawsuits.

It will take some time to tell the full impact of this crisis. Many countries in Asia and Africa have banned imports of Chinese dairy products, a potentially fatal blow to a fast-growing industry. Milk consumption in China has more than doubled since 2000. The market for baby formula alone is a 19 billion US dollar business in the country. Thousands of dairy farmers are losing their livelihood as milk consumption has plummeted. Many parents are now feeding their babies imported milk or soymilk.

The "Made in China" label is once again under attack. To prevent the health scare from turning into an economic crisis, the commerce ministry has launched a major inspection campaign for Chinese exports. All food, medicines, toys and furniture will undergo new tests and inspections before being allowed to be shipped overseas.

Date created : 2008-09-23

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