Dairy plant managers held in poisoned milk probe

Three dairy plant managers and one milk powder dealer in central China were arrested today for allegedly selling milk products tainted with the industrial chemical melamine, shortly after the government launched a 10-day crackdown.

The chemical, which is used to manufacture plastics and fertilizer, became a household name in China in 2008 when six children died and 300,000 became ill after drinking tainted baby formula.

Dozens of officials, dairy executives and farmers were punished, and Beijing vowed to implement strict safety measures and step up industry inspections.

Lekang Dairy Company general manager Zhang Wenxue and vice general managers Zhu Shuming and Tong Tianhu have been charged with manufacturing and selling tainted milk powder in the latest crackdown, the official Xinhua News Agency reported today.

Ma Shuanglin, a milk powder dealer who worked with Lekang in distributing the suspected tainted products, was also arrested, Xinhua said. The dairy, which was among the companies named in the 2008 scandal, is located in Weinan city in the central province of Shaanxi.

The report said the men are suspected of overseeing an operation in which untainted milk powder was mixed with melamine-infused powder.

Melamine can be added to diluted milk products as a way to fool quality control tests for protein levels. This allows unscrupulous dairies to stretch their profits.

Melamine can have dire effects when ingested, including causing kidney stones and kidney failure.

Concerns about tainted milk products peaked again early this year after authorities in Shanghai said they secretly investigated a dairy for nearly a year before announcing it had been producing tainted products.

The case was especially troubling because Shanghai Panda Dairy Co was one of the 22 dairies named by China’s product safety authority in the 2008 scandal, with its products having among the highest levels of melamine.

As part of the current 10-day crackdown, “all melamine-tainted milk products will be found and destroyed,” Xinhua quoted Health Minister Chen Zhu as saying.

In January, tainted dairy products from three companies that had somehow made it back on store shelves were pulled from more than a dozen convenience stores around the southern province of Guizhou.

In December, the general manager of a dairy in northern Shaanxi province and two employees were accused of producing and selling more than five tons of tainted milk powder. Xinhua reported that none of the tainted powder had reached the market.

Melamine-tainted milk products were also recently found in the provinces of Shaanxi, Shandong, Liaoning and Hebei.

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