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China’s Food Quality Chief Quits Over Tainted Milk Supply Scandal

“Li [Changjiang] was the highest-ranking official brought down so far by the dairy product contamination scandal,” China’s official news agency Xinhua said Monday, according to Reuters.

The tainted milk powder contains an industrial chemical called melamine that can cause kidney stones and other problems. Investigators say some raw milk suppliers had been watering down their milk to make more profit, and then adding the melamine, which, because it is high in nitrogen, can falsely increase the protein count of the milk to fool quality checks.

Xinhua also reported that an investigation has found that one of companies at the center of the scandal, Sanlu, began receiving complaints about its milk powder in December 2007, but failed to report the problem to authorities, according to Reuters.

On Sunday, Beijing authorities more than doubled the stated number of children hospitalized for serious complications from the tainted milk, from 6,244 to 12,892. Of those children, 104 were in series condition, and four children have died. Nearly 40,000 more have been treated for milder symptoms on an outpatient basis, China’s health ministry said.

Officials did not explain the sudden leap in numbers, but did say that health officials have been combing through months of hospital records to investigate the origins of the tainted milk, the Associated Press reported.

Meanwhile, the scandal spread outside mainland China for the first time this weekend, as two children in Hong Kong were hospitalized with kidney stones. Brunei, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Taiwan have banned or recalled Chinese dairy products, including liquid milk and milk candies as well as powdered milk, according to Reuters.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao called milk manufacturers “heartless” and promised regulatory action, according to CNN.

“What we need to do now is to ensure that nothing like this happens in the future, not only in dairy products, but in all foods,” Wen said. “Manufacturers and owners of dairy companies should show more morality and social responsibility in these cases.”

Wen visited a Beijing hospital and supermarket to show his concern on Sunday, CNN reported. The government has promised to provide free healthcare for any children harmed by the milk.

But many in China are not convinced by those statements, Time magazine reports.

“Xinhua was quick to blame the dairy industry for their skewed rules, but what it didn’t say was that the government also played a part in that ugly game,” a Chinese blogger identified as sadmoon109 wrote, according to Time Magazine.

Only a few months ago, in May, China’s food safety agency released a report saying that 99.1 percent of baby milk powders on the market had passed safety tests, media reports have noted. And many Chinese citizens are wondering whether dairy makers and government officials conspired to cover up the problems, according to the New York Times.

New Zealand dairy company The Fonterra Group, which is a partner of the Sanlu company, says it knew about the problems in August, weeks before the Chinese public found out, according to the paper.

Chinese parents lined up by the hundreds outside Beijing’s Children’s hospital last Thursday to have their children checked, Time magazine reported. Migrant worker Luo Hexin said that his two-year-old son had been drinking powdered milk, but that he worries about the safety of all affordable dairy products.

“Now we are switching to rice soups,” he told Time.

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