10/30/2008, 00.00
CHINA - HONG KONG
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Chinese authorities ordered cover-up of melamine-contaminated eggs

The health authorities of Liaoning suppressed the news, until it emerged in Hong Kong. The scandal has expanded to nine egg companies. But Beijing is silent, while confusion and fear grow for consumers and producers. The FAO asks for "news" about meat safety.

Hong Kong (AsiaNews/Agencies) - Hong Kong has found melamine in the eggs of a third Chinese company, and health secretary York Chow has asked mainland authorities "whether it is possible to issue a melamine-free certification for eggs that are going to be exported to Hong Kong." Meanwhile, media sources are reporting that as early as October 6, the health department of Liaoning found melamine in local eggs and ordered an investigation into the Mingxing Feed Company, but suppressed the news.

A health department document dated October 22 - the Beijing News reports - says that "no media interviews on this issue shall be accepted." On October 26, the substance was found in Hong Kong, in eggs of the Hanwei Group of Dalian (Liaoning), a leader in the sector. Company president Han Wei, known as "the Chinese poultry king," is a highly placed adviser of the central government, and has distinguished himself by his efforts for food safety. Chinese blogs are full of criticisms, and are quoting his passionate words in official meetings and also before the national people's assembly, about the "priority of the people" and "food safety." Now, the government of Dalian has prohibited exports of Hanwei products, which are sold in Japan and elsewhere.

Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, melamine has been found in the eggs of a company from Hubei: 3.1 milligrams per kilogram, just over the limit of 2.5 milligrams. But it is a serious matter in itself that the chemical substance, used to produce plastic but poisonous for human beings, has been found in the eggs at all. Now supermarkets in many cities are rejecting various brands of eggs, like Hanwei. There is also confusion because no official guidelines have been issued. Questions are being asked why Beijing is still silent over the cause of the contamination. Experts comment that a derivative of melamine is widely used in animal feed, and is believed to be absorbed by poultry. Zhang Zhongju, a Chinese official at the FAO, says that the Chinese agriculture ministry has been asked whether melamine has been used in animal feed: the fear is that it could accumulate in the meat of poultry, cows, pigs, fish. What is known is that the contaminated eggs came from a wide geographical area - Hubei, Shanxi, Liaoning - and the food safety authorities labeled them an "organic product."

Wang Zhongqiang, a spokesman for the National Poultry Industry Association, explained yesterday that "the entire poultry industry is in total desperation," "since Monday, we have been receiving a deluge of e-mails and phone calls from egg producers and farmers calling for help as the demand for eggs drop and prices slump. From what we know, the prices in Jiangsu dropped from 3.6 yuan to 3 yuan (from about 36 to 30 euro cents) per half kilo, and wholesalers had stopped collecting eggs all together in some northeast provinces. We are launching a countrywide investigation to find out what exactly is going on. We will have an overall estimate about the damage in a couple of days."

More than 53,000 infants have kidney problems (and four have died) after consuming melamine-contaminated powdered milk from leading Chinese companies.

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