Shanghai tainted milk problem kept secret for year

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BEIJING (AP) — Chinese authorities kept an investigation into a Shanghai dairy a secret for a year before announcing last week that the company had been shut for producing tainted milk, state media reported.

Authorities in Shanghai found contamination in Shanghai Panda Dairy Co. Ltd.’s products as early as Dec. 30, 2008, and launched an investigation last February, the China Daily newspaper said Wednesday.

But it was only last Thursday that Shanghai’s food safety bureau announced that the dairy had been shut that week and three of its executives arrested for selling milk powder and condensed milk tainted with the industrial chemical melamine, which can cause kidney stones and kidney failure.

“The case was not allowed to be released to the public,” the newspaper quoted Shen Weiping, an official in the prosecutor’s office in Shanghai’s Fengxian district, as saying. “The three executives will be prosecuted in a week for producing and selling fake or substandard products.”

Repeated calls to the Fengxian prosecutor’s office and the Shanghai food safety bureau rang unanswered Thursday.

The apparent delay in notifying the public about the case raises questions about the effectiveness of China’s efforts to better regulate its food industry despite several food scares in recent years that exposed serious flaws in monitoring the nation’s food supply.

China enacted a food safety law early last year promising tougher penalties for makers of tainted products that also says authorities must immediately inform the public when food products have been found unsafe for consumption.

At least six children died in 2008 after drinking contaminated baby formula and more than 300,000 were sickened in one of the country’s worst food safety crises. The scandal exposed the widespread practice of adding melamine, normally used in the manufacture of plastics and fertilizer, to watered-down milk to increase profits and fool inspectors testing for protein.

Shanghai authorities said last week eight batches of contaminated milk powder and condensed milk produced by Shanghai Panda had been found to contain unacceptably high levels of melamine and would be destroyed.

An official with the country’s product safety watchdog told the China Daily the case was withheld from the public because it had come under criminal investigation by police.

Yan Fengmin, deputy director of inspection in the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, said both the agency and the Shanghai government were informed immediately after the case was found and that all harmful products were seized.

In November, police detained three people suspected of selling tons of melamine-tainted milk powder in northern Shaanxi province — just weeks after China executed a dairy farmer and a milk salesman for involvement in the 2008 scandal.