China's leaders scrambled Saturday to contain public dismay over widespread contamination of milk supplies, castigating local officials for negligence while moving to tamp down criticism of the government's response.
Officials promised to keep stores supplied with clean milk and set up medical hot lines nationwide to help people cope with one of the worst product safety scandals in years.
Milk and dairy products from 22 companies have been recalled after batches tainted with the industrial chemical melamine sickened more than 6,200 children and left four infants dead from kidney failure.
“This has caused a very widespread scare in Chinese society, and there's a great deal of mistrust,” said Jing Jun, a sociologist at Tsinghua University in Beijing. “People see this as a failure of the government. The companies here were not thoroughly inspected.”
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Trying to shore up public confidence, Premier Wen Jiabao told senior Communist Party members that official misconduct contributed to the milk contamination and earlier product scandals. He demanded they put public safety “at the top of the agenda.”
“In some places, incidents of food and production safety have continuously arisen and seriously harmed people's lives and health,” Wen said in remarks carried on state-run television. “The social impact is vile and the lesson profound.”
In a show of concern, Wen's chief deputy made a highly publicized trip to a dairy region south of Beijing at the center of the scandal, visiting farms, shops and a hospital, where he urged “all-out efforts on medical treatment” for the sick.
Recalls of Chinese-made dairy products widened Saturday to Japan. Starbucks stopped offering milk in its 300 outlets in China.