China's health minister blamed a dairy Saturday for the delay in warning the public about tainted milk powder linked to kidney stones in infants and at least one death, as authorities increased the number of known sick babies to 432.
The incident has been an embarrassing failure for China's product safety system, which was overhauled in an attempt to restore consumer confidence after a string of recalls and warnings around the world over tainted toothpaste, faulty tires and other Chinese-made goods.
Officials complained they were not alerted to the milk problem until Monday even though the product's maker, Sanlu Group, had received complaints as early as March and its tests found a banned chemical in the milk powder in August. The company ordered a recall Thursday.
“The Sanlu Group should shoulder major responsibility for this,” Health Minister Gao Qiang said at a news conference.
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He gave no indication what penalties the dairy might face, but said those responsible would “be dealt with severely.”
Officials defended their response to the new latest product safety disaster. They said 19 people had been detained and 78 were being questioned about how the banned chemical melamine was added to milk sold to Sanlu, which is China's biggest producer of milk powder.
Shoddy and fake goods are common in China, and infants, hospital patients and others have been killed or injured by tainted or fake milk, medicines, liquor and other products.
The milk scandal is especially damaging because it involves a major food processor. The government expects such companies to act as industry role models of safety and quality.
Gao, who said the government had launched an emergency inspection of all 175 Chinese companies that produce infant formula, said some of Sanlu's tainted milk powder was exported to Taiwan but none was sold to other foreign markets.