China yesterday said it would widen checks to ensure all categories of dairy products produced domestically were contaminant-free, as the number of babies ill from drinking tainted infant formula rose to 6,244.

This new development came a day after the government said melamine had been found in samples of infant formula sold by 20 per cent of all Chinese milk powder companies tested in a nationwide probe.

Health officials yesterday confirmed a third infant death, this time in eastern Zhejiang province. The two earlier deaths occurred in north-west Gansu province in May and July.

Of the affected infants, 158 are suffering from ‘acute kidney failure’, said health minister Chen Zhu at a press conference yesterday.

Health officials had said on Monday that 53 infants were in ‘serious condition’ and a total of 1,253 had been diagnosed with illnesses linked to milk powder spiked with melamine.

In all the cases, the sick children had been fed formula produced by Sanlu Group based in Shijiazhuang city, the capital of northern Hebei province, Chen said. News that 22 of China’s 109 infant formula producers – among them some of the country’s most trusted brands, including Olympic sponsor Yili Industrial and Meng Niu Group – were found to have produced tainted formula, has ignited a fresh wave of anger on the Internet.

The other 87 companies passed checks and their products are safe, officials said.

Yili and Meng Niu, both listed companies and based in Inner Mongolia, issued public apologies yesterday. Sanlu apologised on Monday.

Despite this, netizens have threatened boycotts of domestic dairy brands and expressed fears over whether all milk products, not just infant formula, have been exposed to melamine contamination.

Addressing those concerns at yesterday’s briefing, the head of China’s top quality watchdog body, Li Chang-jiang, said wider checks were under way.

He was also asked why, despite having previously encountered problems with fake milk powder and the illegal use of melamine in food products, China did not enforce tests earlier to screen for melamine in dairy products.

He said: ‘In our national standards for infant formula, as well as in international food statutes, there are no stipulations to test for harmful chemical additives because they are prohibited from being used in food products.’

He added that to deal with this ‘new problem’, the government would review its baby formula standards and consider introducing tests for dangerous chemicals such as melamine.

A Cabinet meeting chaired by Premier Wen Jiabao yesterday called for an overhaul of the dairy industry, which it described as ‘chaotic’. Supervision of the industry was also criticised as ‘weak and flawed’.

The concentrations of melamine found in milk powder made by the 22 companies varied from brand to brand, said Li.

Sanlu formula was found to contain the highest concentrations of melamine. Every kilogram of tainted Sanlu milk powder contained 2,563 milligrams of melamine. This is way over the maximum amount – 15mg of melamine per kg of milk powder – that a six-month-old baby can ingest without negative effects, said Health Minister Chen.

Melamine in the products made by the other 21 companies ranged from 0.09mg to 619mg per kg of milk powder. He added that two of the 22 problematic producers – Qingdao-based Suokang and Yashili of Guangdong province – had exported products to Bangladesh, Yemen, Myanmar, Burundi and Gabon. Both have started recalls.

Speaking to reporters later, Hebei’s vice-governor revealed more disturbing details about the Sanlu case. Many of the 372 milk collection stations in Hebei which sold raw milk to Sanlu were found to have used melamine, said Yang Chongyong.

Some started the practice of adding melamine to artificially boost the protein content of raw milk as early as April 2005, he said. So far, 41 milk collection stations have been found to be problematic, 27 suspects are being questioned and six people have been arrested.

Police are also looking at whether Shijiazhuang officials colluded with Sanlu executives to conceal the milk powder scandal, Yang revealed.

Sanlu Group alerted the Shijiazhuang city authorities on Aug 2 but knew weeks before that its infant formula was contaminated, he said. Shijiazhuang officials then sat on the matter for a month before reporting it to the provincial authorities last week.

Five Shijiazhuang officials have since been fired, including the city’s mayor and vice-mayor in charge of agriculture. The sacked chairman and general manager of Sanlu, Tian Wenhua, has been detained by police, state news agency Xinhua said. The Straits Times