China quality chief resigns over milk

Other News Materials 22 September 2008 17:49 (UTC +04:00)

The head of China's quality watchdog has resigned amid a growing scandal over melamine-contaminated milk, reported BBC according the official Xinhua news agency.

Li Changjiang stepped down "with the approval of the State Council", China's cabinet, Xinhua said.

Earlier Prime Minister Wen Jiabao apologised for the contamination, which has made nearly 53,000 children ill.

Four children have died and about 13,000 remain in hospital, 104 of them reportedly in a serious condition.

The problem was first revealed two weeks ago, when milk powder from the Sanlu Group was found to contain melamine, an industrial chemical.

At least 22 other companies have since become involved in the scandal, and milk products made by the Yili, Mengniu and other groups have been recalled from supermarket shelves in China and many other countries.

Estimates of the number of people affected have jumped in recent days, probably as the result of checks by health officials, who looked at hospital records from May this year to trace the origins of the contamination.

Mr Li, whose agency is responsible for ensuring that China's food supply chain is safe, will be replaced by Wang Yong, a senior cabinet official, Xinhua said.

Prime Minister Wen has promised to reform the dairy industry and to improve its regulation - and this effort appears to have begun with the resignation of Mr Li, says the BBC's James Reynolds in Beijing.

He is the first central government official to lose his job over the scandal. His resignation follows the sacking of a number of local officials and the detention of several dozen people involved in the supply of contaminated milk.

Touring hospitals in the capital, Mr Wen said he felt "extremely guilty" about the health scandal.

"I sincerely apologise to all of you," he said, after visiting sick children in hospital.

"What we are doing now is to ensure that nothing like this will ever happen again, and we are not only talking about milk. We will never let the same situation repeat with any kind of product."

But parents queuing outside the hospitals to get their children checked for kidney stones told the BBC they were still not sure what they could safely feed their children.

One father said that he believed the people who contaminated the milk had no conscience.

"It's unbearable," he said.

Meanwhile, the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture said despairing farmers were dumping milk and killing cattle after companies stopped buying their supplies, reported Reuters news agency.