China milk scandal: one month on

One month after the scandal came to light on September 11, AFP presents the key facts about the crisis:

Death and injury toll:

Four infants have died in China after having drunk powdered baby milk contaminated with melamine.

上海性息

The health ministry said on September 21 that 53,000 had been sickened, but has not disclosed the latest total.

It admitted on Thursday that nearly 47,000 children had been hospitalised, more than triple the initial number.

But it did not release updated figures on the number of outpatients.

The toxic chemical:

Normally used to make synthetic resin and plastic, melamine can cause kidney stones, and even block kidney functions, when mixed into food.

When added to milk that is watered down to increase volumes, melamine, high in nitrogen content, gives the appearance of good protein levels.

The babies died from kidney failure. Melamine was detected in traditional milk, ice cream and sweets, but only milk powder has been deadly, due to the particularly high concentration of the industrial chemical.

The infants\’ frail organisms were also completely dependent on the milk powder for food.

The fraud:

Information has been scarce, but experts say contamination either took place in the thousands of milk collection stations around the country, or with the middle-men who delivered the milk from small farms to big dairies.

But these same experts, who refuse to be named, point to “well organised underground networks” and even a “melamine mafia,” due to the huge scale of the crisis.

The tainted products:

After being detected in milk powder made by Sanlu Group, more than 20 Chinese companies have been found to have had contaminated products, including industry giants such as Mengniu, Yili and Bright Dairy.

Abroad, melamine was detected around the world, in dairy ice cream, milk drinks, biscuits, sweets, milk tea, cheese-flavoured peanuts and chocolate bars.

The culprits:

Aside from arrests of 42 melamine traffickers — all in the northern dairy regions of Hebei and Inner Mongolia — the scandal also brought down a few key people:

– Li Changjiang, director of AQSIQ, the quality control watchdog, was sacked.

– Tian Wenhua, the chairwoman of Sanlu Group, from which the scandal erupted, was sacked and arrested.

– Wu Xianguo, the Communist Party secretary of Shijiazhuang – the headquarters of Sanlu and capital of Hebei — and Ji Chuntang, mayor of the city, were also sacked after they delayed telling Beijing about the scandal.

Beijing reacts:

The scandal “has shown that the dairy market is completely disorganised and that the supervisory control system is flawed,” the government admitted mid-September.

The government recalled many products, ordered the destruction of hundreds of tonnes of milk and sent armies of inspectors in all provinces.

It has tried to reassure various embassy representatives that Chinese dairy products released onto market since September 14 are safe.

But the international community is still concerned and recalls continue.