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China declines to say how many kids sick in milk scandal

October 07, 2008

HOHHOT, China (AFP) China on Tuesday declined to release updated figures revealing how many children have been affected by the tainted milk scandal, as it attempted to boost confidence in its food safety standards.

The health ministry said it had new statistics showing how many babies were believed to have been left ill by the crisis, but did not release the data and gave no indication if or when it would made the latest information public.

"We've not released the latest number of cases because it is not an infectious disease, so it's not absolutely necessary for us to announce it to the public," a health ministry spokesman told AFP.

The World Health Organisation in Beijing said it had not been informed of the updated data either.

The foreign ministry said it was not in a position to make the figures public.

"We have no authority to make the health ministry release the figure. They are the department in charge," said a foreign ministry spokesman.

Previous official data said milk powder tainted with the chemical melamine had claimed the lives of four children and made a further 53,000 ill.

Melamine, used to produce plastic, can make watered-down milk appear richer in protein than it really is.

Since melamine was found to be the cause of kidney stones in thousands of Chinese children who had been fed tainted baby formula, a worldwide wave of recalls and warnings over Chinese products has kicked in.

As the government scrambled to improve confidence in its food standards, the State Council, or Cabinet, approved draft measures to improve supervision of the dairy industry, the state-run China Daily said.

"(The contamination) greatly harms the health of babies and ruins the reputation of the country's dairy business, and even the entire food industry," the paper reported, summarising the conclusions of a Cabinet meeting.

The paper said the new measures call for supervision of the entire dairy chain, from the raising of cows, the collection and purchase of raw milk, to the production, sale and export of dairy products.

The measures also clarify the responsibilities of government agencies, and stipulate punishment for negligent inspectors and people who add toxic materials to dairy products or violate production safety rules, the paper said.

Food products containing traces of melamine have turned up as far away as South America.

The latest were found in a number of Chinese restaurants in Hungary, the country's agriculture ministry announced Monday, adding the levels were not dangerous.

Lebanon and Iran also banned Chinese milk products, as arguably the worst product safety debacle in corporate Chinese history continued.

At home in China, the economic impact was also mounting, with observers forecasting the crisis would cost the nation's dairy industry billions of dollars.

Companies whose products were contaminated saw sales plunge 60 to 70 percent last month from a year earlier, said Lao Bing, an analyst with Shanghai-based Mental Marketing Dairy Consulting.

Dairy sales for the full year are likely to be 20 percent lower than the 160 billion yuan (23.5 billion dollars) posted last year, said Lao, whose firm advises leading Chinese dairy brands.

"The industry had been growing at a pace of more than 20 percent over the past few years, but this year it's going to remain flat," he said.

About three million workers, mostly connected to the small dairy producers who account for 80 percent of China's milk production were affected, said Chen Lianfang, an analyst from Beijing-based Orient Agribusiness Consultant.

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