Thirteen infants in east China's Anhui Province have died of nutritional deficiencies from consuming substandard milk powder.
According to a recent investigation, 171 infants suffered from malnutrition after being fed with milk powder deficient in protein and other nutrients. Two are still being treated in hospital.
While a China Daily report says more than 50 babies in the province have died of malnutrition. One of the latest victims is a three-month girl called Han Qin, who was sent into Fuyang People's Hospital last Monday.
The majority of them live in rural areas in Fuyang City. The parents bought cheap milk powder which contained little nutritional ingredients at rural shops in Fuyang. The children displayed swollen heads, while their bodies failed to grow properly.
The news aroused widespread repercussions after it was broadcast on television Monday. The Anhui provincial government issued an urgent circular Tuesday, calling for immediate rectification of the milk powder market and severe punishment of law breakers.
Provincial Governor Wang Jinshan said in a fax to the general office of the provincial government Monday evening that immediate measures must be taken to investigate where the milk powder came from and the responsibilities of various parties, and how to compensate the victims.
The tragedy has caught national attention.
Premier Wen Jiabao has vowed a thorough investigation and severe penalties for the producers of the fake powder. An investigation team was sent to Fuyang by the State Food and Drug Administration on Monday.
With the support of several other departments including the State General Administration for Quality Supervision and Inspection and Quarantine, State Administration of Industry and Commerce and the Ministry of Health, the investigation team will try to find out how the fake powder cases hit the market and punish those behind the sales.
The team will also try to develop measures to prevent a similar tragedy from happening again, food and drug administration officials said Tuesday.
So far, Fuyang City has confiscated 6,110 bags of inferior milk powder and sealed 12,862 bags of milk powder. Investigation of key milk powder wholesale agents is under way.
Officials suspect cheap milk powders produced in north China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, northeast China's Heilongjiang Province and Beijing.
Bans on milk powders which failed to reach the national standard of protein content for infant milk powder -- at least 10 percent -- are in place. Some 33 brands of milk powder have also been put on a "black list." However, those brands can be found on the market.
Some of them have only 1 percent of protein, almost providing no nutrition for babies' growth, health experts said.
Food security is a serious problem in rural areas, said Xia Jiechang, an economics professor with the China Academy of Social Sciences.
"Rural areas become the biggest distributing centers for low-quality and counterfeit goods, where supervision is slack and information is insufficient," Xia said.
(Sources including Xinhua News Agency and China Daily, April 21, 2004)