China scrambles to salvage reputation amid milk scandal

Beijing has set up working groups in nearly every single province and has embarked on a sweeping drive to set up a series of new food testing centres after tainted milk sickened 53,000 babies and killed four.


China was scrambling Thursday to salvage its reputation after tainted milk sickened 53,000 babies and killed four, as UN agencies deplored attempts by implicated dairy firms to deceive the public.

The government has set up working groups in nearly every single province, and has embarked on a sweeping drive to set up a series of new food testing centres and replace outdated equipment, officials said.

"Our quality inspection authorities are required to establish nearly 400 product testing centres within the next two years, and 80 of these will be food testing centres," said Hou Linglin, a senior official at the quality watchdog.

Hou was speaking at a food safety conference in Beijing after China and many of its trading partners were rattled by revelations that milk powder and other Chinese-made dairy products contained melamine.

Melamine is mainly used for making plastic but when added to milk, the toxic chemical can make it appear richer in protein.

"Based on what we've seen in the press I would say, this looks like an attempt to deceive the public by milk producers who seem to be trying to water down their milk," said Dale Rutstein, a Beijing-based spokesman for UNICEF, the UN's children agency.

UNICEF earlier issued a statement with the World Health Organisation, saying it had "observed with great sadness and concern the unfolding story of tainted infant formula produced by Sanlu and other companies."

"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.

Hou, of the product quality agency, told his audience at the Beijing conference that a new food safety infrastructure was sorely needed.

"China is a large food-producing country, and the number of food items needed to be tested is growing very fast," he said.

"Although the central and local governments have increased their investment every year, currently more than 50 percent of the equipment has been used for over seven years, and is too old to be upgraded."

Meanwhile, the agriculture ministry said 29 provincial areas nationwide had set up special working groups to regulate the dairy product market, according to Xinhua news agency.

Local governments also promised subsidies for dairy farmers, in a bid to reduce the cost of feeding cows, Xinhua said.

However, for all of Beijing's efforts, considerable damage has been done to the "Made in China" brand, with the milk scandal following in the wake of other scares over unsafe products from Asia's main exporting nation.

"It greatly influences people's buying decisions. You have a kind of repeat of incidents," said Jim Cramer, an official from the Oregon state Department of Agriculture in the United States.

"It does shake the confidence of people within their own nation and obviously internationally, in the US," he told AFP on the sidelines of the food safety conference.

South Korea became the most recent country to ban the import of all products containing Chinese powdered milk after discovering melamine in some snacks, officials said Thursday.

The Korea Food and Drug Administration said in a statement the ban took effect immediately after it found melamine in Chinese-made "Misarang Custard" cakes and "Milk Rusk" biscuits.

More than a dozen countries have now ordered such bans or taken other steps to curb consumption. So far, the only four cases outside mainland China of children falling ill through tainted milk have been reported in Hong Kong.

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