Lipton milk tea recalled; China vows action

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By Jason Subler, Reuters

BEIJING — Chinese President Hu Jintao lectured a dairy executive on food safety on Tuesday in a show of government resolve in the tainted milk scandal, even as another Western food brand, Lipton, was affected.

Global consumer goods group Unilever Plc/NV said on Tuesday it was recalling four batches of its Lipton-brand milk tea powder in Hong Kong and Macau after they were found to contain traces of melamine.

Earlier Tuesday evening, President Hu led a media campaign to show the government’s resolve in confronting the issue on the main evening television news broadcast.

“Food safety is a matter of the health of the people,” Hu told the head of a local dairy company in the eastern province of Anhui during a visit to a farm, shaking his finger.

“Of course, it’s also an issue of companies’ survival. You have to learn the lesson from Sanlu’s experience, and improve your management to ensure that all products that reach the market are up to the standards,” Hu said, referring to Sanlu Group, the Chinese dairy firm whose products have been blamed for many of the illnesses.

A growing list of Chinese milk and milk-related products have been taken off shelves in recent weeks after it came to light that some milk had been contaminated with the industrial chemical melamine, sickening tens of thousands and killing four children.

The Lipton recall comes just a day after British confectionery group Cadbury Plc said it was withdrawing all of its 11 chocolate products made in Beijing.

China’s latest food safety problem, involving the addition of melamine to milk to cheat in quality tests, has caused public outrage and put the spotlight back on deficiencies of oversight in its food industry.

Other officials also took to the airwaves to reassure consumers and express their concern.

Wang Jianguo, spokesman for the municipal government of Shijiazhuang, capital of Hebei province, issued an apology for the city’s handling of the case.

“As the local government, we have an irrevocable responsibility for this matter. We feel deep regret and sorrow about it. We express our deep apologies towards the infants who have fallen ill, as well as their parents,” Wang told state TV.

Wang acknowledged that the local government had received a report from Sanlu as early as Aug. 2 about the problem but only reported it to the provincial government on Sept. 9.

Its failure to report the case earlier was the result of a lack of “political sensitivity”, Wang said.

Zhou Bohua, head of the State Administration for Industry and Commerce, said on television news that authorities were redoubling their efforts to remove all tainted products from store shelves.

They had disposed of 8,256 tons of shoddy milk and milk powder so far, state TV said.

The broadcaster added that a number of provinces, including Hubei, Sichuan, Jiangsu and Liaoning, were setting minimum buying prices for milk to put a floor under the market for farmers. That comes in addition to subsidies being handed out by a number of other provinces.

In addition to vowing to clean up the milk industry, officials have promised to bring those behind the tainted milk to justice.

Police in Hebei province, which has been at the center of the scandal, have detained 22 people suspected of being involved in a network that produced melamine and sold it to farms and milk purchasing stations, the official China Daily said on Tuesday.