Milk-Powder Scandal Angers Chinese Parents



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A baby who drank tainted milk powder receives an ultrasound examination Wednesday in a hospital in the city of Wuhan in China's Hubei province. (China Photos/Getty Images)
A baby who drank tainted milk powder receives an ultrasound examination Wednesday in a hospital in the city of Wuhan in China's Hubei province. (China Photos/Getty Images)

China has arrested 12 more people in connection with a scandal over contaminated milk powder. A city mayor was sacked, and thousands of inspectors were sent out to monitor all dairy producers.

The latest figures show four children have died after drinking tainted milk, and more than 6,000 have been affected.

In the Shanghai children's hospital, the human cost of this scandal was clear to see. Anxious parents lined up in the registration hall, holding their precious only children tightly. Many rushed there after hearing the news of the contaminated milk powder to see if their children have been affected by drinking this tainted milk.

"We've done CT scans, ultrasounds, blood tests, plasma tests, urine tests, faecal tests," says Qu Chunli, the grandmother of an 11-month old boy. "It's just torture for the baby."

Hitting Chinese Poor

Qu Chunli has been looking after baby Zhaohang for eight months, feeding him milk formula made by Sanlu, the company whose milk was found to have the highest level of contaminants.

The family traveled 200 miles for the medical tests. They were told baby Zhaohang has stones in his urinary tract. The family had chosen Sanlu because it's a famous Chinese brand. Qu Chunli was beyond angry.

"I hate them, I hate them," she said. "They're killing our children."

The scandal is hitting China's poor. Zhaohang was drinking formula because poverty had forced his mother to leave home to find work. His family could not afford more expensive imported brands.

Sanlu company has issued a televised apology. But it and local officials are accused of a cover-up, since they knew about the problem for at least six weeks before issuing a recall.

And the scandal is snowballing. Tests now show 22 Chinese dairy companies were selling products containing melamine — a chemical normally used in plastics and banned in food products.

National Scandal, National Shame

Last year, Chinese-made pet-food ingredients tainted with melamine killed and sickened thousands of American cats and dogs. But here in China, unethical middlemen have been adding melamine to watered-down milk to make it appear higher in protein.

It's a national scandal, and a matter of national shame.

"The doctors told us not to talk about it," said one mother who was waiting for her baby's ultrasound. "It's an issue for our whole country, and the government is dealing with it."

The tainted products have been removed from supermarket shelves.

This is not China's first milk-powder scandal. Four years ago, at least 12 babies died from malnutrition after drinking fake baby formula that contained no nutrients. Now the government says it will reform the entire dairy industry.

"The scale of this scandal is so extensive, it could lead to a big class-action lawsuit," said consumer lawyer Jiang Xian. "And if such behavior does lead to companies going bankrupt, then it's not necessarily a bad thing."

Outside the hospital, Zhang Ruijun cradled her 11-month-old baby girl. The baby has been drinking Sanlu milk her whole life. Now her mother simply doesn't know which Chinese products are safe.

"How could we have any confidence after what's happened?" she asked.

It's a question many others are asking here, where so many unscrupulous traders put profit before human lives.

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Authorities are rounding up suspects today in Yemen. That's where there was an attack on the U.S. Embassy. A vehicle packed with explosives blew up outside the embassy's main gates. Six attackers were among the 16 dead in that attack. NPR's Ivan Watson is now outside the embassy gates in Yemen's capital Sana'a. And Ivan, what does it look like?

IVAN WATSON: Steve, I'm standing amid the rubble of what was a brazen frontal assault on the heavily fortified U.S. Embassy compound. There is twisted metal scattered on the streets here, glass, bits of human flesh, as well as the burned-out ruins of several vehicles. What happened was around nine o'clock in the morning on Wednesday, a vehicle burst through here. One of the armed passengers shot and killed an embassy security guard, and they lifted the drop gates at the outer perimeter of the embassy compound and pulled aside some other barriers, and then the vehicle was packed with explosives and it targeted a Yemeni armored security vehicle.

Then a second vehicle packed with explosives and carrying passengers who were armed rolled up, and they opened fire on the embassy. I'm looking at bullet holes in the guard window of the embassy outer walls. A battle ensued here, and there was a second explosion. So this was a pitched battle that took place here, right outside the gates of the U.S. Embassy. The battle between the Yemeni government and al-Qaeda has gone on for several years. The Yemeni government signed on very quickly to the Bush administration's war on terror after the September 11 attacks.

But the number of incidents involving al-Qaeda related groups has intensified, particularly over the last year. This embassy itself has been attacked five times in five years. Also over the course of the past year, insurgent groups have attacked tourist destinations, killed foreign tourists. They've also attacked oil installations, so foreign interests in Yemen have definitely been targeted. And there is no sign that this growing problem is going away.

INSKEEP: Haven't there been terror attacks in Yemen and also terrorist recruits linked to Yemen going back many years now?

WATSON: There have. Yemen is the ancestral homeland of Osama bin Laden. There were al-Qaeda training camps here. And there are a number of detainees in Guantanamo Bay who are Yemeni citizens as well. The Yemeni government has promised to fight against al-Qaeda, but Washington has indicated that not enough has been done, that some suspects - convicted individuals who have been involved in the attack on the U.S.S. Cole, a Navy ship that was hit several years ago with 17 servicemen killed there - that that attacker was released for some time.

But the Yemeni government is weak. Until the last year, really, al-Qaeda itself hasn't posed a direct threat to the stability of the Yemeni government itself. That may be changing with this increase of attacks on tourism industry and on the oil industry here, which has a direct impact on the Yemeni government's revenues.

INSKEEP: Ivan, were any Americans killed at that spot where you're standing today?

WATSON: We're getting reports from New York that a high school student, 18-year-old Susan El-Baneh, was killed in this attack. She had come back to Yemen last month to get married and was preparing to go back to finish her senior year in high school. U.S. embassy officials have not been able to confirm that, but family members and the principal of her high school have indicated that she is one of the victims of yesterday's battle.

INSKEEP: NPR's Ivan Watson is standing outside the U.S. Embassy in Yemen. Ivan, thanks very much.

WATSON: You're welcome, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.