In China, Tainted Milk Spurs Questions Of Cover-Up

More than 54,000 children have been sickened, and four have died from tainted milk in China. David Barboza, The New York Times correspondent in Shanghai, China, says investigators are looking into whether there was a cover-up of the problems with the milk.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block. In China, more than 54,000 children have been sickened by tainted milk powder. Nearly 13,000 are hospitalized, and four have died. The scandal has also forced the resignation of China's head of food and product safety. David Barboza of The New York Times is following the story from Shanghai. And, David, let's talk first about these children. We've seen scenes of hospitals just flooded with anxious parents trying to get their children tested, many of them sick.

NORRIS: That's right. I have, in fact, heard from health officials here in China that one hospital alone took in more than 10,000 children. And so you can see the images all over China now, on television and in the newspapers, of hospitals in every part of the country, where children are being brought in to check whether they have kidney stones from this milk contamination.

BLOCK: Let's walk this back. The milk powder and baby formula were contaminated with the industrial chemical melamine. It's the same chemical that was found last year in pet food. What have you learned about who apparently added the melamine, and why it was added?

NORRIS: Well, the investigators are still looking into it. But so far, what we've heard is that the melamine was added, probably at milk stations, where some unscrupulous businessmen were probably trying to increase the protein count in that milk, which was actually probably diluted with water. So it was just trying to profit from watered-down milk with an industrial chemical that can make the protein count jump. And so that seems to be where the focus of this investigation is going. Either the dairy farmers or some businessmen at the milk stations were adding melamine.

BLOCK: You know, what's become very clear in all this is that there were reports from consumers complaining about problems with this milk long ago - and in some cases, as far back as last December - but the companies were very, very slow to act.

NORRIS: That's right. The earliest reports we've heard now from the government say that in December 2007 - which is, you know, quite a ways ago - that the Sanlu Group, one of the biggest Chinese dairy makers, had received complaints about problems with their baby milk formula. And what we know now is that they didn't report that until June or July to the local government officials, who didn't report that to the higher-level government officials until August or September.

BLOCK: And the recall itself didn't happen until what, September 11?

NORRIS: That's right, between September 9 and 11, the recall came in, and the bigger numbers started to come in after September 11, when there was media coverage of this recall.

BLOCK: Are people there timing the delay in this recall to the Olympics and the notion that China would have wanted to not have a huge scandal on its hands in the middle of this international event?

NORRIS: Well, certainly, there's a lot of speculation that either the government officials kept it under wraps, fearing that it would be bad news and bad for their careers, or that higher-level government officials actually put out warnings ahead of the Olympics that they really didn't want the media or anyone reporting bad news. There certainly is a lot of speculation that the sensitivity around the Olympics meant that any bad news, particularly food safety, would be kept under wraps.

BLOCK: When you go into stores now, is there milk on the shelves?

NORRIS: There is, but very little. And it's mostly imported milk. I have been to a couple of supermarkets lately, and you could see more than half-empty shelves. Milk from Australia or New Zealand is there. So you have a pretty big milk shortage right now in China.

BLOCK: David Barboza, a correspondent for The New York Times based in Shanghai, China. David, thanks very much.

NORRIS: Thank you.

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