09/30/2008, 00.00
CHINA
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Western brands containing Chinese milk also at risk

In China, 22 people have been arrested under the accusation of putting melamine in milk. But meanwhile, the toxic substance has been found in Western products. Large quantities of the poisonous product have been exported to Europe and the United States.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) - 22 people have been arrested under the suspicion of putting melamine in milk. Now the problem is also that of certifying how much Chinese milk has been used by Western multinational companies.

State media say that during inspections of at least 41 dairy plants and milk storage stations in Hebei (the province where Sanlu, the company most involved in the scandal, is based), the police confiscated more than 220 kilograms of melamine and arrested factory supervisors, storage station owners, and farmers, confirming that the contamination involves the entire dairy industry, to keep prices low and profits high. Melamine is a cheap chemical that is rich in nitrogen, and when it is added to milk, it makes it seem like it has a high protein content, even if it is poor in nutritional value and perhaps even adulterated with water. The substance is toxic for humans, and in China there are more than 53,000 infants with kidney problems because they consumed  products containing it. About 13,000 of them are hospitalized, and at least 4 have died. It is significant that the substance was found at factories even after the scandal exploded three years ago.

After the main Chinese companies were implicated (producing about 60% of the country's fresh milk, and much of its powdered milk), Chinese products containing milk have been banned or subjected to careful inspection throughout the world. But many famous brands, including Western ones, have facilities in China, or use Chinese powdered milk and creamer. Yesterday, the British giant Cadbury recalled 11 of its chocolates produced in Beijing and distributed in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Australia, because they contained melamine. The company stresses that these products are not distributed in other countries.

in 2007, the European Union imported about 19,500 tons of sweets from China, including candies, chocolates, and cookies. In 2008, the United States imported about 900,000 kilograms of protein derived from milk, casein, used as an ingredient in many foods.

In Indonesia, inspections are still taking place on Oreo cookies from Kraft Foods, and on M&Ms and Snickers from Mars, made in China and believed to contain high concentrations of the substance. The two U.S. companies, however, say that these brands pass inspection in other Asian countries, and say that the products in question are counterfeit.

On September 26, the U.S. food and drug administration warned consumers not to use seven brands of instant coffee and tea with milk in the Mr. Brown product line, which King Car Food Industrial Co. Ltd produces in China, through Shandong Duqing Inc. The product has been recalled "because of the possibility of melamine contamination" in the creamer. In the days before this, authorities in New Zealand warned that the popular White Rabbit Creamy Candy (enjoyed in more than 50 countries, and very popular in China) was found to contain "high levels" of the substance.

Before this, Heinz Foods in Hong Kong recalled baby cereal found to contain traces of melamine. In Taiwan, Pizza Hut found the substance in its cheese, provided by the Taiwanese Kaiyuan Company. In this case, the source of the contamination is not known. There is great concern especially in Taiwan and South Korea (but also in Japan), countries that use large quantities of Chinese creamer and powdered milk in their products: like the snack Misarang Custard (in the photo) from the Korean Haitai Confectionary. Health officials have ordered the destruction of all of the product still in circulation.

In Hong Kong, melamine has also been found in crackers and cereals for children. Media sources say that it is also contained in Nestlé brand milk products for children - although in "harmless" quantities - and the product has been removed from the shelves. The Swiss company denies that the product is contaminated.

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