China's September Surprise: Tainted Formula Sickens 53,000 Infants

| Wed Sep. 24, 2008 5:12 PM EDT

The Chinese government managed to keep its latest disaster under wraps last month when Beijing was all the world's stage: it's top formula-brand, and 21 others, have been tainted with melamine, the industrial chemical that led to more than 100 recalls of Chinese-made pet food here in the US and has been blamed for thousands of pet deaths.

What started out as a notification that one company was affected ballooned to 22 and now the government is admitting that the tainted milk has led to the deaths of at least four infants and has sickened another 53,000. Unlike seafood (and everything else), the US doesn't allow dairy imports from China, so no formula in the US is at risk, though the FDA has stepped up testing of candies and other desserts made of dairy products in China.

Cases started cropping up several months ago but the government was slow to respond and even slower to notify the public of the potential that the formula they were using was unsafe. Children are showing signs of incontinence, vomiting, and kidney trouble. Melamine is used to artificially boost protein content, a move seen as a way to cut corners in a Chinese production market where suppliers are forbidden from boosting prices.

Investigators are suggesting that the government knew about the tainted formula as far back as March, and a bad-news ban leading up to the Olympics put the health of thousands of children at risk.