Page last updated at 12:18 GMT, Tuesday, 16 September 2008 13:18 UK

China baby milk toll 'may rise'

Fifteen-month-old Tian Yaowen who suffers kidney stones, cries in a ward of Tongji Hospital in Hubei province on Monday
Amid rising public anger, there are reports of a media crackdown

China's health ministry says the number of babies sickened by contaminated milk powder could rise further.

Two babies died and over 1,200 became ill after drinking the milk, which was spiked with the chemical melamine.

State media quoted the ministry as saying medical agencies were ready for a "possibly rising" number of cases.

Hundreds of angry parents queued outside the company premises demanding explanation and compensation, Reuters news agency reported.

"Their number could rise as the search for more infants fed Sanlu milk food spreads across the country's rural areas," China Daily reported.

I'm angry. I'm furious
Yang Letong

"The number could rise sharply in coming days as more parents take their children for medical check-ups," the report added, citing Health Minister Chen Zhu.

The government has called the poisonings a "Level 1" food safety incident and formed an emergency team to grapple with the fallout, Xinhua news agency reported.

But rising public anger, expressed on China's active internet forums, is prompting reports of a crackdown by the government on reporting of the milk scandal.

Sanlu apology

That anger was reflected outside the headquarters of the company blamed for making the contaminated formula, Sanlu Group, in Shijiazhuang, Hebei province, where distraught parents gathered, Reuters reported.

Businessman Yang Letong, 34, told the agency his toddler twin daughters had drunk Sanlu products since they were born.

"So what if they give us our money back, you can't give our children their health back," he said.

"I am angry," he said, tears welling in his eyes. "I'm furious."

Sanlu apologised on Monday, saying that suppliers who sold the milk had apparently added the chemical.

A Chinese woman inspects Sanlu brand milk powder on sale at a supermarket in Shenyang, Liaoning province, on Saturday
[This] has caused severe harm to many sickened babies and their families. We feel really sad about this
Zhang Zhenling
Sanlu vice president

Normally used in the manufacture of plastics, melamine makes foods appear higher in protein, but has caused kidney stones in babies in several Chinese provinces.

Zhang Zhenling, Sanlu's vice-president, did not explain why the company took so long to inform the public about the contamination despite receiving complaints as early as March and having tests confirm the presence of the chemical in early August.

News emerged of the problem only after a New Zealand company, Fonterra, which owns 43% of Sanlu, informed New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, who then informed the Beijing government.

"The serious safety accident of the Sanlu formula milk powder for infants has caused severe harm to many sickened babies and their families. We feel really sad about this," Mr Zhang said, reading from a prepared statement.

Four people have so far been arrested in connection with the scandal, with more expected. Twenty-two others are being questioned.

Vice-health minister Ma Shaowei warned on Monday that as many as 10,000 infants may have drunk the contaminated milk.

Mr Ma said that 340 children remained in hospital, and that out of these 53 were in a serious condition.

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