BEIJING (AP) -- The head of European food giant Nestle said Friday the company had mounted a "sizable effort" to ensure the safety of its dairy products in China, sending in scientists and specialized machines in the wake of the melamine contamination scandal.
"From the first moment, the first minute we heard about the problem, we mobilized quite a sizable effort," CEO Paul Bulcke said at a news conference to inaugurate a research and development center in Beijing. "We mobilized close to 45-50 people worldwide to be part of the solution and containment of this problem."
Dairy products contaminated with an industrial chemical have sickened tens of thousands of children in China and are blamed in the deaths of four infants.
Dairy suppliers are said to have added melamine, a chemical used to make plastics and fertilizer, to watered-down milk to dupe quality control tests and make the product appear rich in protein.
Nestle sent in 20 scientists from its research base in Switzerland to production sites to help set up specialized techniques for detecting melamine and similar compounds, according to Chief Technology Officer Werner Bauer. In addition, two highly specialized machines that can detect minute traces of melamine are currently being used at the new research and development center.
Since the scandal broke, the company began voluntary testing of all its dairy products produced before September 2008. All of its products have been certified by the Chinese government as safe, he said.
Trace amounts of melamine have been found in Nestle products, including milk powder and candy in Taiwan, Hong Kong and other places, though the amounts did not pose a danger to human health.
"We had never had a product that was unsafe for consumption," Bulcke said.
Bulcke called the contamination "a criminal act" and said he "strongly welcomed" the Chinese government's announcement of new guidelines earlier this month limiting acceptable melamine levels in food products. There had been no previous standards for the amount of the chemical allowed.
Ingesting a small amount of melamine poses no danger, but in larger doses it can cause kidney stones and lead to kidney failure.
Nestle's long-term practice of directly buying milk from 35,000-40,000 Chinese farmers without going through middlemen gives the company better control over its supply of raw milk, said Patrice Bula, head of Nestle's operations in China.
Bulcke said Nestle remains committed to China and said he is confident the government's recent moves to increase oversight in the dairy industry will help shore up consumer confidence.
However, regulating food safety in the country remains a challenge, with state media reporting this week that the practice of mixing melamine into animal feed is an "open secret" in an apparent tacit admission by the government that contamination in the country's food supply is more widespread.
Four brands of Chinese eggs have been found to be contaminated with melamine this past week, and agriculture officials speculated that the cause was contaminated feed given to hens. No illnesses have been linked to the eggs.
The government has not said what it is doing about the problem of melamine in animal feed.