China milk alarm raised long before recall

One of China's biggest dairy producers received consumer complaints about its baby milk formula as early as December – much earlier than previously thought and nine months before the producer ordered a nationwide recall because of concerns that the formula had been adulterated with a toxic industrial chemical, state media said Tuesday.

The disclosure, in a government report publicized by the official Xinhua News Agency, is the latest indication that the producer, Sanlu Group, had repeatedly attempted to hide information about its contaminated dairy supplies from the public.

Baby milk formula in China tainted by melamine, a chemical compound, has already sickened more than 53,000 infants and killed four children nationwide, leading to recalls of Chinese-made dairy products in China and other parts of Asia, devastating this nation's huge dairy industry and casting a renewed pall over the quality of Chinese food production.

Officials at the Sanlu Group, which is based in northern China's Hebei province, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

The government report did not include details about the nature or number of consumer complaints but placed the timing of when they began at least six months earlier than first reported.

Earlier this month, government investigators said Sanlu officials had delayed acting on consumer complaints and warnings in June, and that local government officials in Hebei had known of the problems in early August, just before the Olympics opened in Beijing.

The Sanlu Group announced a nationwide recall in early September.

The Fonterra Group of New Zealand, one of the world's biggest dairy exporters with a 43 percent stake in Sanlu, says it pressed its Chinese partner to announce a recall in August, but company and local government officials refused.

Food safety experts say the delays may have allowed the tainted milk supplies to spread more widely, harming tens of thousands of children.

The delays have led to widespread speculation in China that the Sanlu Group and some government officials were attempting to cover up the scandal during the Olympics because Beijing had pressured Chinese journalists and companies not to release negative news.

In the past two weeks, though, the milk scandal has mushroomed, with worried parents rushing to hospitals, supermarket chains pulling dairy products off shelves and dairy farmers dumping milk because no one is willing to drink it.

China's dairy industry has been booming for more than a decade, with the aid of a government initiative to get Chinese to drink more milk.

But worries about baby milk formula tainted with melamine, used to produce plastics and fertilizer, led to government checks that uncovered evidence that products made by 22 other dairy producers, including some of China's best known dairy brands, have also been tainted by melamine.

On Monday, the head of the nation's quality watchdog was forced to resign for failing to properly supervise the dairy market. Several government officials from Hebei province were also forced to step down, along with the chairwoman of the Sanlu Group.