Milk crisis shows lack of control

China's milk scandal, one of the world's biggest food safety crises in a decade, underscores how production controls have lagged behind the country's booming economic growth, a WHO expert said on Friday.

But food producers everywhere, rather than national regulators, bear prime responsibility for the quality and safety of their goods, said Peter Ben Embarek of the World Health Organisation's food safety department.

Chinese provinces have reported nearly 10 000 additional cases of children who have developed kidney illnesses after drinking toxic milk formula in recent days, local media reported on Friday. Previously close to 40 000 others were affected, with nearly 13 000 in hospital, and four have died.

"This crisis with milk contaminated with melamine originating in China is one of the largest food safety events that we have had to deal with in recent years," Ben Embarek told a news briefing.

Melamine is a cheap industrial chemical that can be used to cheat quality checks. In the past decade, mass food-borne outbreaks of salmonella in the United States and of E. coli in Japan each affected more than 100 000 people, according to the scientist.

Industry outgrowing guidelines

The WHO, a United Nations agency, has worked with the Chinese authorities since 2001 on strengthening food safety, he said. It helped draw up a new food safety law for China.

Food production in China has grown at a blistering rate over the last decade, but national systems to put the "rules of the game" in place have not kept up, Ben Embarek said.

"These national systems that are supposed to monitor and put a framework for the private sector to operate under are not following at the same pace. That opens the door to all kinds of misbehaviour, incidents, and criminal and intentional acts like we have seen in this case," he said.

He described the contamination scam, known to have been carried out by 22 companies, as a "large-scale activity to deceive consumers for simple basic short-term profits".

Full story not known yet

Asian, African and European countries have banned imports of Chinese milk products as a result of the scandal, which has done renewed damage to the reputation of Chinese exports.

China first confirmed the problem to the WHO on September 12, following the agency's inquiries, according to Ben Embarek. "As part of the (Chinese) investigation they found at least at provincial and municipal level there were local authorities who already knew what was going on several months before that," he said. "But we do not have the full extent of the story."

Chinese authorities have tested tens of thousands of dairy products over the last two weeks and removed contaminated ones from the market, he said. "So you can be sure what is on the shelf is by and large coming from a safe source," he said. – (Reuters Health, September 2008)

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