BEIJING, China - Police have arrested six suspects and detained another 41 for allegedly participating in the production and distribution of melamine-tainted milk powder, food safety authorities said over the weekend.
In the latest national crackdown on toxic milk products, as of Friday the police had seized 227 tons of newly discovered melamine-contaminated milk powder after the previous nationwide crackdown in 2008.
The goods included 124 tons from a dairy in Northwest China's Qinghai province and 103 tons by other manufacturers in Hebei, Shanxi, Heilongjiang provinces and Tianjin municipality, the national food safety regulating work office said in a statement.
Vice-Premier Li Keqiang, chairman of a national food safety commission, last week urged food inspection authorities to strengthen supervision in order to significantly improve food safety in the wake of the latest problems that have emerged.
In 2008, the toxic milk powder scandal killed at least six infants and sickened 300,000 children in China, sending shockwaves across the world. In the incident, milk powder from 22 domestic dairy plants was found to contain excessive melamine, an industrial chemical that is added to watered-down milk to boost its protein levels during quality tests.
The latest melamine scandal was first discovered in Northwest China's Gansu province in late June.
Police have since traced its source to the Dongyuan Dairy Factory , Minhe county, in neighboring Qinghai province, according to the statement.
The factory's head, Liu Zhanfeng, deputy head Liu Xiping and workshop director Wang Haifeng were among those arrested, together with three dairy suppliers from Hebei province.
Tests on samples of the milk powder, which the food safety authorities said is leftover from the original batches of melamine-laced milk powder that were supposed to have been destroyed in 2008, showed it contained up to 500 times the legally permitted amount of the industrial chemical, the statement said.
In March this year, a Shanghai court sentenced three executives from Shanghai Panda Dairy Co to jail terms of three to five years for their roles in the production and sale of melamine-laced dairy products, which were also leftover from 2008.
Commenting on the latest scandal, an unnamed official from the national food safety office was quoted by Xinhua News Agency as saying that it reflected "serious loopholes" in supervision and poor management by local authorities.
According to the official, an investigation is being held to see whether any dereliction of duty took place among supervision authorities where the latest toxic milk products were found and that those found responsible would be punished.
Since June this year, the required protein level in dairy products has been lowered from 2.95 to 2.8 percent to discourage farmers from using additives.
Despite the government's repeated crackdowns and commitment to ensuring safe food, Chinese consumers' confidence in domestic dairy products continued to decline, the latest statistics show.
The volume of imported milk powder in Shanghai and neighboring Jiangsu province in the first seven months of this year grew 40 and 290 percent respectively over the same period last year, despite hefty increases in the price of imported dairy products, according to statistics from the local customs offices.