The number of infants Chinese health officials say were sickened by tainted milk powder doubled Monday to more than 1,200 as police announce the first arrests in the spreading scandal.
The Health Ministry said two infants died of kidney failure after drinking Sanlu brand milk powder spiked with the industrial chemical melamine. The company says suppliers who sold it apparently added the chemical, normally used in plastics, to make the milk seem higher in nutrition.
Vice Health Minister Ma Xiaowei told reporters at a news conference that 1,253 infants had been sickened, more than twice the number previously acknowledged. Of those 913 of the infants were only slightly affected, while 340 remained hospitalized and 53 cases were considered especially severe, he said.
"Wherever cases are found, we'll bring out experts and resources to bear in treating the victims," Ma said.
Police said they had arrested two brothers, surnamed Geng, who run a milk collection center in Hebei province and are accused of adding melamine, the official Xinhua News Agency said. They sold about three tons of contaminated milk a day, the report said, citing Hebei police spokesman Shi Guizhong.
The incident is an embarrassing failure for China's product safety system, which was overhauled in an attempt to restore consumer confidence and preserve export markets after a string of recalls and warnings abroad over tainted toothpaste, faulty tires and other goods.
The milk scandal is especially damaging because Sanlu Group Co. is China's biggest producer of powdered milk and such large companies are expected to act as industry role models for safety and quality.
Shoddy and fake goods are common in China, and infants, hospital patients and others have been killed or injured by tainted or fake milk, medicines, liquor and other products.
Chinese investigators say melamine may have been added to the milk to fool quality tests after water was added to fraudulently increase the milk's volume. Standard tests for protein in food ingredients measure nitrogen levels.
While none of the milk powder was exported to Europe or the United States, the scandal has taken on international dimensions because Sanlu is 43 percent owned by a New Zealand dairy farmers' cooperative, Fonterra.
New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark said Monday that she had learned of the problem on Sept. 5 and convened a meeting of senior ministers three days later at which she ordered officials to directly inform senior authorities in Beijing, at a time when provincial Chinese officials appeared to be dragging their feet in ordering a recall.
"We were the whistle blowers and they leapt in and ensured there was action on the ground," Clark told reporters.
"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," she said.
Fonterra, the world's biggest milk trader, said Sunday it had urged Sanlu to recall the product as early as six weeks ago. Sanlu did not order a recall until last Thursday and authorities have so far seized 2,176 tons of milk powder from a Sanlu warehouse and recalled 8,218 tons already sent to market, Xinhua said. It said all would be destroyed.
Chinese officials have defended their response to the country's latest product safety disaster but blamed Sanlu Group for delays in warning the public. Officials say 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, which is banned in food products.
Details of the children's deaths show the problem appeared to have gone undetected for months. The first victim, a five-month-old boy from the western city of Lanzhou, died on May 1 after his family cut off treatment, ministry officials said. The second, an eight-month-old girl also from Lanzhou, died under similar circumstances on July 22.
On Sunday, the General Administration for Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine sent groups of officials to Hebei, Guangdong and Heilongjiang provinces and the Inner Mongolia region to inspect dairy companies. The teams will also work with local officials to remove all substandard milk powder from the market.
Inspectors will check the country's 175 baby milk food factories and their findings will be released within two days, Li said.