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China's Melamine Milk Crisis Creates Crisis Of Confidence

The World Health Organization calls the melamine milk crisis in China one of the largest food safety events the UN health agency has had to deal with in recent years. It says the milk scare has created a crisis of confidence among Chinese consumers, which will be hard to overcome. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from WHO headquarters in Geneva.

The World Health Organization reports more than 54,000 children in China have sought medical treatment, 12,000 are hospitalized and at least four infants have died from melamine-contaminated dairy products.

WHO says it only learned about these toxic products on September 11. By then, it says they had been marketed to Chinese consumers for months, turning this food safety scare into a global scandal.

WHO Food Safety Scientist, Peter Ben Embarek, says the ball started to roll as soon as WHO was informed of the crisis. He says swift action was taken to recall all contaminated products on the market. He says the Chinese authorities have been providing regular updates and cooperating in every way.

He says all of these products are going through intensive testing so what is on the shelf in China is now probably safe. He says the Chinese have tested tens of thousands of products over the last few weeks.

"So you can be sure that what is on the shelf is by-in-large coming from a safe source," said Embarek. "They also are importing increasingly foreign products that have also been tested and also ensure that they come from production systems with safe ingredients. All of these measures should reassure parents that what is now on the shelf is safe."

But, Embarek acknowledges it will take a lot of time and patience to restore confidence among consumers who feel abused and cheated.

Melamine is used in making plastics and is high in nitrogen, which makes products appear to have more protein content. In small amounts it is harmless. But, sustained use can cause kidney stones and renal failure, especially among children.

The chemical has been found in other dairy products as well. The Chinese maker of the popular White Rabbit Candy, made from milk, stopped domestic and foreign sales of the candy after finding melamine.

The candy has been found in Hong Kong, New Zealand and Singapore. A growing number of countries are barring imports of Chinese products containing milk.

Embarek attributes much of the problems to, what he calls, the incredible pace in the development of food, agricultural, and industrial production in China over the past few decades. He says the agencies in charge of setting the rules and monitoring food safety in the private sector are not developing at the same pace.

"And that opened the gates and the door to all kind of, I would say, misbehavior and incidents and criminal and intentional acts like we have seen in this case," said Embarek. "The large scale of this event ensures that it was clearly not an isolated accident. It was a large-scale intentional activity to deceive consumers for simple, basic, short-term profits."

The World Health Organization says the industry in China and elsewhere has to adopt the culture of food safety. It says countries must strengthen their food control and food-borne disease surveillance systems. It says this could minimize food safety crises such as the dairy scandal in China.