NZ PM alerted China to tainted baby milk

September 15, 2008 - 8:13AM
 

New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark says that she ordered that senior Chinese officials in Beijing be told about China's tainted milk problem as local Chinese officials had stalled calls for a full recall of the infant formula.

China's health minister on Saturday blamed Sanlu Group Co., China's biggest milk powder producer, for delays in warning the public about its contaminated product.

China's authorities have detained 19 people and are questioning 78 others about how the banned chemical melamine was added to powdered milk formula sold to Sanlu Group Co.

New Zealand dairy farmers' group Fonterra, which owns 43 percent of Sanlu Group, said on Sunday it had urged the company to recall the product as early as six weeks ago, despite a full public recall only being initiated last week.

Clark said on Monday the first she knew about the issue was on September 5.

Three days later she convened a meeting of senior ministers at which she ordered officials to leapfrog provincial Chinese officials and immediately inform their superiors in Beijing.

"As you can imagine when the New Zealand government blew the whistle in Beijing a very heavy hand then descended on the local authorities," Clark told TVNZ's Breakfast program.

"They (Fonterra) have been trying for weeks to get official recall and the local authorities in China would not do it," she said.

"At a local level ... I think the first inclination was to try and put a towel over it and deal with it without an official recall. That is never what we would do in New Zealand," Clark said.

"I think Fonterra, from the advice I have had, has behaved responsibly at all times, but it has been dealing in a political system at a local level in China where the inclination is to cover things up, but I have to say once we blew the whistle in Beijing they moved very fast," she said.

Chinese officials said they were not alerted until last Monday, even though Sanlu received complaints as early as March and company tests in August found the milk powder contained melamine, a chemical used in plastics that is banned in food products.

Sanlu ordered a recall Thursday.

At least 432 Chinese babies who were fed Sanlu milk contaminated with melamine, an industrial chemical which can boost the apparent protein content in some standard tests on food, are suffering from kidney stones, Health Minister Gao Qiang said at a news conference Saturday. One baby reportedly died.

Clark said she hoped the scandal would not affect Fonterra's reputation, but it showed to the company it could "not be naive" in its foreign operations and had to insist on its own high standards.

2008 AP