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Mercury-tainted milk powder mires China in new safety scandal

By Rory Harrington , 15-Jun-2012
Last updated on 15-Jun-2012 at 14:54 GMT2012-06-15T14:54:46Z

Mercury-tainted milk powder mires China in new safety scandal

A new food contamination scandal has hit China this week after elevated levels of mercury were detected in infant formula made by the country’s top producer.

Chinese food safety officials raised the alarm and ordered the recall of infant formula made by Yili International Group after “unusual amounts” of the highly toxic metal were found in a range of its products.

The recall of tainted powdered milk products will bring back memories of the melamine scandal in 2008 which led to at least six deaths and the sickening of 300,000 people. Thousands of tonnes of product was recalled after manufacturers were found to have routinely and deliberately contaminated their product with the industrial chemical.

Mercury

Yesterday, the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ) confirmed mercury had been identified in several batches of the Inner Mongolia-based company’s products.

Yili is the only manufacturer whose products have so far tested positive for the deadly metal, said AQSIQ. The agency has analysed more than 700 samples from producers across China, said state media.

Unusual mercury levels were also uncovered in two batches of Yili baby formula and two whey powder samples, said the consumer regulator in Inner Mongolia.

The Inner Mongolia autonomous region's local consumer quality regulator has also reported "unusual" mercury content in two batches of Yili baby formulas and two samples of Yili whey powder.

The company said it had launched a recall of all affected products. The recall applies to ‘QuanYou’ products that were produced between November 2011 and May 2012.

 Imported whey powder?

Quoting ‘dairy experts’, Reuters said that checks for heavy metals would usually be among the raft of tests carried out on both raw materials and the finished product.

Sources of contamination could be pollution from coal-fired power plants absorbed into feed or breathed by cows, any additives made from fish and contaminated packaging, said the experts.

"It's possible the mercury could be due to imported whey powder. All Chinese processors use imported whey powder; it's not made here," said Chen Lianfang, a dairy expert at Oriental Agribusiness in Beijing.

He noted that whey powder can account for about a third of the ingredients in baby formula.