Battered Chinese Dairies Promise Safety

Chinese dairy executives trying to shore up their beleaguered industry pledged to implement higher standards, while nearly 6,000 babies remained hospitalized due to tainted milk.

HOHHOT, China (AP) -- Chinese dairy executives trying to shore up their beleaguered industry pledged Thursday to implement higher standards, while nearly 6,000 babies remained hospitalized with kidney problems from contaminated milk.

Officials in the major dairy-producing region of Inner Mongolia said the country's two largest dairies were planning to consolidate farming and raw milk collection to allow better quality control.

The move is the latest attempt to contain the fallout after baby formula contaminated with the industrial chemical melamine was blamed for causing the deaths of four infants and sickening about 54,000 other children in mainland China.

The Health Ministry said Wednesday that 5,800 children were still hospitalized, six in serious condition.

Chinese authorities have blamed dairy suppliers for the food safety scandal that began last month, saying they added melamine to watered-down milk to fool quality control tests and make the product appear rich in protein.

Melamine, a chemical used to make plastics and fertilizers, can cause kidney stones as the body tries to eliminate it and, in extreme cases, can lead to life-threatening kidney failure. Infants are particularly susceptible.

In an effort to restore public trust in local milk supplies, reporters were taken on a tour of dairy facilities in Inner Mongolia, home to Mengniu Dairy Group Co. and Yili Industrial Group Co., both of which have been implicated in the scandal.

Mengniu and Yili have seen their shares plummet. The leading business magazine, Caijing, reported that losses at both companies were expected to top $526 million in the next four to five months.

Officials said quality checks have intensified in recent weeks, with Mengniu and Yili deploying 3,000 inspectors throughout the region, and the government more than 4,000.

"Provide 100 percent safety to consumers," read a slogan on a red banner in the ultra-clean processing and packaging hall at Yili's headquarters in Hohhot.

Yili employees showed reporters a new station for melamine testing where workers dressed in lab coats and gloves used new testing equipment they said cost the company $15 million to import from the United States and Japan.

"After this incident, we have increased melamine checks on all raw milk supplies (and) only that which passes the tests goes into the factory," said Yili executive president Zhang Jianqiu, after the tour. "All of Yili's products on the markets for sale ... meet the standards."

Government officials said the blame did not lie with the companies but lower down the chain with the farmers.

Ren Yaping, a vice governor of Inner Mongolia, said the government and the industry are considering merging milk collection stations and farmers into larger cooperatives as a way to improve quality.

"The most important thing at the next stage is to start from the raw milk and improve the inspection right through the production process," Ren said.

The tainted milk scandal has led to more than 30 countries restricting Chinese dairy products, and in some cases all Chinese food imports.

In Vietnam, health officials said Thursday that three milk products imported from a Japanese company's factory in Singapore were found to be contaminated with melamine.

The products' Vietnamese distributor, Huong Thuy Company Ltd., said the milk melon, cappuccino coffee and milk coffee all came from Pokka Corp.'s factory in Singapore.

Meanwhile, the Malaysian government on Thursday banned the import of ammonium bicarbonate, a baking agent, from China, after certain products tested positive for melamine.

Malaysia has already banned the import of all milk and milk-based products from China.

Associated Press writers Dikky Sinn in Hong Kong and Cara Anna in Shanghai contributed to this report.

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