Watchdog quits amid tainted formula scandal

The head of China's food safety watchdog resigned Monday for failing to stop the widespread contamination of baby formula as the number of children sickened in the scandal soared to nearly 53,000, including four infants who died.

The shake-up came as investigators revealed that China's biggest producer of powdered milk, Sanlu Group Co., had received complaints as early as December 2007 linking its infant formula to illnesses in babies. Months later, tests revealed the milk was tainted with the industrial chemical melamine, which causes kidney stones and can lead to kidney failure.

“During these eight months, the company did not inform the government and did not take proper measures, therefore making the situation worse,” China Central Television reported, citing an investigation by the State Council, China's cabinet.

Melamine, used to make plastics and fertilizer, has been found in infant formula and other milk products from 22 of China's dairy companies. Suppliers trying to cut costs are believed to have added it to watered-down milk to mask the resulting protein deficiency.

The number of sick children reported by the Health Ministry has jumped from 6,200 to nearly 53,000. Of those, 12,892 remain hospitalized, with 104 of them in serious condition. Another 39,965 children have been treated and released.

The ministry did not explain the sudden increase but it suggested health officials were combing through hospital records from May through August to trace the origins of the contamination.

Baby formula and other milk products have been pulled from stores around the country, and Chinese dairy products have been recalled or banned in Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and Hong Kong.

The resignation of Li Changjiang, who headed the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine since 2001, comes a year after he promised to overhaul the system in response to a series of product safety scares.

New regulations were introduced in an attempt to restore consumer confidence and preserve export markets after a string of recalls involving tainted toothpaste, faulty tires, contaminated seafood and pet food containing melamine that was blamed for the deaths of dogs and cats in the United States.