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Taiwanese Authorities Struggle to Reassure Public About Milk Powder Imports

A Taiwan government delegation has returned from China after a three-day trip to investigate the origin of melamine-contaminated milk powder. Despite government claims that progress was made in guaranteeing food safety, the tainted milk scandal has undermined public confidence in Taiwan's Department of Health. Thibault Worth reports from Taipei.

Public anger forced Taiwan's health minister to resign last week after he flip-flopped on the maximum amount of melamine allowable in food. For weeks, the department has scrambled to process requests by local manufacturers to certify the safety of their products.

Chinese authorities earlier this month warned that tons of melamine-contaminated milk powder were exported to Taiwan.

The new health minister, Yeh Ching-Chuan, says a delegation sent to China has established direct communication with food safety regulators in Beijing. The delegation returned from China on Monday.

Yeh says the two sides established emergency contact points for food safety issues and will keep communication channels open.

He then downed a cup of King Car instant coffee in a gesture of reassurance. Earlier this month, King Car learned that several of its products were contaminated with melamine and recalled them after informing health authorities.

Despite Yeh's reassurance, many Taiwanese doubt the success of the delegation's visit. Chinese officials would not allow the delegates to inspect any factories.

Andrew Yang is with the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies in Taipei. He says the public's anger is focused on the Health Department, not on President Ma Ying-jeou, who is working to further open Taiwan's market to China.

"This has very much to do with the ability or capability to deal with contingency and crisis. It has less to do with the leadership," Yang noted.

On Tuesday, health officials met to discuss melamine testing procedures, as well as acceptable levels of the substance in food. The health department promises to help Taiwanese food companies seek compensation from the China for any tainted goods.

More than 20 Chinese dairy companies were found to have adulterated milk products with melamine, a substance normally used in making plastics. Melamine artificially boosts protein levels, but it can cause severe health problems, including kidney damage.

More than 50,000 children in China have been made ill by tainted milk and at least four have died.

Many countries have barred imports of Chinese dairy products after finding melamine in candies and dairy products.