09/16/2008, 00.00
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Adulterated milk, more than 1,000 confirmed cases of kidney problems in children

1,250 cases have already been verified, but the number is expected to grow significantly. Many of the cases are serious. Meanwhile, the government is telling the media to "soften" its tone. Experts: the market is too vast for controls to be effective.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) - More than 1,250 children are sick with kidney problems after being fed  adulterated milk from the Sonlu Group, and the health ministry maintains that the number will rise, because of the harmful nature of the product and its widespread use in rural areas without many hospitals. The ministry says that "many children will be visited over the next few days". In addition to two deaths, there are at least 50 serious cases of kidney stones caused by melamine in the powdered milk, a substance used in plastics that can raise a food's apparent nutritional value but is harmful to human beings.

Public opinion is increasingly disturbed over the extent of the contamination (said to have affected 8,000 tons of the product), undetected by quality controls. Just 12 months ago, Sanlu was praised on state television as a model of reliability.

Media sources say that, in reaction, the authorities have "asked" the state media to "reduce" the attention given to this matter and soften the tone of the coverage. Public safety agencies are also accused in the affair, because they had news of the problem since July, but were slow to intervene.

Yesterday, Zhang Zhenling, the vice president of Sanlu, presented in a letter his "most sincere apologies" to the population. Sanlu is defending itself by saying that its suppliers were the ones who stretched the milk with water and then added melamine to make it seem more nutritious. Yesterday, the police arrested two dairy farmers in Nanlou for selling three tons of milk adulterated in this manner to Sanlu in 2008. Another 19 people have been detained in Hebei over the scandal. Many observe, however, that the phenomenon is too vast to be explained by adulteration on the part of individual suppliers.

Lao Bing, manager of the Mingtai Dairy Industry Sales Fund, observes that "China's dairy industry has grown too quickly for safety administration to keep up. There are no uniform standards and there are loopholes in legal oversight".

China is the second-largest market in the world for powdered milk for children, and Sanlu has been the leader in the sector for 15 years, accounting for 18.3% of the sales in 2007.

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