Number of Chinese children sick from bad milk jumps to 12,000

BEIJING -- China's tally of the number of children sickened by tainted milk products has doubled to nearly 12,900 as the government confronts a scandal over widespread contamination of the milk supply.

More than 80 percent of the 12,892 children hospitalized in recent weeks were 2 years old or younger, the Health Ministry said in a statement posted on its website late Sunday. The statement said most consumed infant formula from one company, the Shijiazhuang Sanlu Group Co., the dairy at the center of one of China's worst food safety scandals in years.

Over the weekend, the Chinese territory of Hong Kong reported the first known illness outside mainland China -- a 3-year-old girl who developed kidney stones after drinking Chinese dairy products. She was discharged from the hospital, a Hong Kong government statement said.

In the two weeks since the government first acknowledged the contamination, it has issued recalls for dairy products from 22 companies after tests turned up traces of the industrial chemical melamine. The Health Ministry said that most of the hospitalized were sickened by powdered milk and formula.

"The hospitalized children basically consumed Sanlu brand infant milk powder. No cases have been found from ingesting liquid milk," said the statement.

The ministry did not say why the number of cases had suddenly doubled, from 6,200 on Saturday, but it suggested that health officials were combing through hospital records from May through August to trace the origins of the contamination. The deaths of three infants linked to tainted infant formula occurred in those months, the statement said.

Japan and Singapore have recalled Chinese-made dairy products, and the governments of Malaysia and Brunei announced bans on milk products from China even though neither country currently imports Chinese dairy items.

The concern is because melamine has been found not only in powdered milk but also in liquid milk sold by China's biggest dairies.

Melamine is used in making plastics and is high in nitrogen, which registers as protein in tests of milk. Though health experts believe ingesting minute amounts poses no danger, melamine can cause kidney stones, which can lead to kidney failure.

Some of the farmers who sell milk to Chinese food companies are thought to have used melamine to disguise watered-down milk and fatten profit margins hurt by rising costs for feed, fuel and labor.

Food and product safety scandals have been a feature of Chinese life. Last year, the government promised to overhaul inspection procedures after exports of medicines, toys, pet food ingredients and other products killed and sickened people and pets in North and South America. The chemical found in the pet food was the same as in the milk scandal.