The mayor of a city whose officials have been accused of failing to deal with reports of tainted baby milk was dismissed yesterday as the government announced that a fourth infant had died and that the police had arrested a dozen more people in a widening investigation.
The mayor of Shijiazhuang, Ji Chuntang, was the most senior official to be fired so far in the growing milk scandal. Ji had been removed Wednesday from his post as deputy secretary of the Shijiazhuang Municipal Committee of the Communist Party, according to Xinhua, the state news agency.
Sanlu Group, one of China's largest dairy companies and the first company that was found to be selling contaminated milk, has its headquarters in Shijiazhuang, in the northern province of Hebei. Investigators have discovered traces of melamine, an industrial chemical, in batches of powdered baby formula made by 22 dairy companies, all of which have said they were recalling their milk products. Producers trying to cut costs often dilute milk with water, which lowers the nutrition level. But the addition of melamine, which is high in nitrogen, helps the milk appear to meet nutrition standards by artificially raising its protein count.
Babies drinking the tainted milk over the course of several months can develop kidney stones or suffer kidney failure. Chinese officials said more than 6,200 babies developed kidney stones after drinking Sanlu's baby milk formula, and four have died.
The latest death took place in a Mongolian area of Xinjiang, in China's far west, Xinhua reported yesterday. Eighty-six babies in the area fell ill after drinking tainted milk.
Last night, China Central Television, the main government network, reported that melamine had been found in some liquid milk from three major brands.
Ji was dismissed in the investigation of what appears to be a chain of neglect and cover-up that began with Sanlu, which is partly owned by a New Zealand company. Sanlu received complaints months ago about suspected problems in the milk, but waited until Aug. 2 to tell the Shijiazhuang city government, Hebei's deputy governor said Wednesday. City officials waited until Sept. 9 to tell provincial officials, who did not inform the central government until the next day.
Sanlu finally recalled 700 tons of the suspect formula Sept. 11.
Some people are accusing officials of hiding reports of contaminated milk during the Olympic Games in Beijing, which ran from Aug. 8 to Aug. 24, and the Paralympics, which ended Wednesday.
Ji's firing indicated that the political consequences of the scandal could mount as more information emerges on the role played by officials and as the death toll climbs. Four city officials were fired before Ji's dismissal. The general manager of Sanlu, Tian Wenhua, has also been fired and was detained by the police.
Angry parents have been gathering outside Sanlu's headquarters in Shijiazhuang and are preparing to file lawsuits. The police in Hebei province have arrested 18 people, including six who sold melamine to milk producers, Xinhua reported. The others were milk producers who added melamine to their products and then sold the milk to dairy companies.
Xinhua reported that a suspect surnamed Su, who was arrested Tuesday, confessed that from February 2007 to July 2008, he bought 200 bags of melamine, each weighing 44 pounds, at a cost of about $29 each and then resold the chemical to milk dealerships for about $32 each.
Hong Kong ordered the recall of the dairy products of Yili Industrial Group, based in Inner Mongolia, yesterday after tests found melamine in eight of the company's 30 products. The police are seeking a milk seller named Xue Jianzhong, who is accused of adding melamine to his milk. Xue was put on a wanted list late Wednesday, Xinhua reported.
The central government's department in charge of consumer quality inspection said Wednesday that it was no longer exempting any companies from product testing. Previously, major companies with a long track record of making quality products could get an exemption.