China said Sunday the number of children sickened by baby formula tainted with the banned industrial chemical melamine has doubled to nearly 12,900 as the government confronts a scandal over widespread contamination of the milk supply.
More than 80 percent of the 12,892 children hospitalized in recent weeks were 2 years old or younger, the Health Ministry said in a statement posted on its Web site late Sunday. Four children have died.
The ministry said most of the children sickened consumed infant formula from one company, the Shijiazhuang Sanlu Group Co. The dairy is at the center of one of China's worst food safety scandals in years.
In the two weeks since the government first acknowledged the contamination, it has issued recalls for dairy products from 22 companies after tests turned up traces of melamine. The Health Ministry said that most of the hospitalized were sickened by powdered milk and formula.
“The hospitalized children basically consumed Sanlu brand infant milk powder. No cases have been found from ingesting liquid milk,” said the statement.
Melamine is used in making plastics and is high in nitrogen, which registers as protein in tests of milk. Though health experts believe ingesting minute amounts poses no danger, melamine can cause kidney stones, which can lead to kidney failure. Infants are particularly vulnerable.
Some of the farmers who sell milk to Chinese food companies are thought to have used melamine to disguise watered-down milk and fatten profit margins hurt by rising costs for feed, fuel and labor.
The ministry did not say why the number of cases had suddenly doubled from 6,200 on Saturday, but it suggested that health officials were combing through hospital records from May through August to trace the origins of the contamination. The deaths of three infants linked to tainted infant formula occurred in those months, the statement said.
The Chinese government has launched high-profile efforts to show it is on top of the crisis, with Premier Wen Jiabao appearing on state-run television Sunday to say diary companies had to show more “social responsibility.”
Wen was shown visiting a Beijing hospital where children were having health checks. He also stopped at a supermarket.
“What we need to do now is to ensure that nothing like this happens in the future,” he said.