BEIJING - China's Health Ministry on Friday ordered a nationwide probe of milk powder linked to a rash of kidney stones in infants and one death and said those responsible "will face serious punishment."
The announcement this week that infants were sickened by the milk powder fueled new worries about Chinese product safety after a spate of injuries and deaths blamed on tainted toothpaste and other goods.
Local officials were ordered to report all possible cases of illness in infants linked to the powder and to arrange emergency treatment, the ministry said in a statement.
"Those responsible will face serious punishment," said a ministry spokesman, Mao Qunan, quoted by the official Xinhua News Agency.
The major Chinese dairy that produced the formula has recalled 700 tons of the product and said it was contaminated with melamine, a chemical used in plastics, Xinhua and the official China Daily newspaper reported.
People who answered the phone at the dairy, Sanlu Group Co., said managers were not available to comment.
"The Health Ministry is still conducting a nationwide investigation of babies' illness due to this, and at the same time is urgently organizing exports to conduct research and treatment," the ministry statement said.
Another ministry statement instructed doctors in how to diagnose and treat the ailments.
In one province, Gansu in the northwest, doctors have reported a total of 59 cases of kidney stones in infants, compared with none in 2006 or 2007, the China Daily said. It said many of those babies were fed the Sanlu formula.
Fonterra, a New Zealand dairy cooperative that owns 43 percent of Sanlu, said it was advised the company had a "quality issue in its products as a result of receiving defective milk in China."
The company "has advised us that they have recalled product in China and have put new milk quality testing procedures in place," Fonterra said in a statement e-mailed to The Associated Press. The statement gave no details of the recall, but China Daily said it involved 700 tons of milk powder.
According to Xinhua, Sanlu said the contaminated powder was produced before Aug. 6.
Authorities launched an investigation this week after 14 babies who drank the formula developed kidney stones and one died, state media reported.
The case adds to a string of safety incidents in China over tainted toothpaste, toys, seafood and other products that have been blamed for deaths and injuries.
Melamine is the chemical involved in a massive pet food recall last year. It is not supposed to be added to any food ingredients, but suppliers in China sometimes mix it into food to make it appear to be high in protein. Melamine is nitrogen rich, and standard tests for protein in bulk food ingredients measure levels of nitrogen.
In Washington, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned consumers to avoid infant formula from China. Authorities said Chinese formula was not legally approved for importation into the United States but might be sold at ethnic grocery stores.
"We're concerned that there may be some infant formula that may have gotten into the United States illegally and may be on the ethnic market," said Janice Oliver, deputy director of the FDA's food safety program.
Sanlu, based in Shijiazhuang southwest of Beijing, is China's biggest producer of milk powder, with 18 percent of the market, according to government data. The company says it produces 6,800 tons of milk per day.
In 2004, more than 200 Chinese infants suffered malnutrition and at least 12 died after being fed phony formula that contained no nutrients. Some 40 companies were found to be making phony formula and 47 people were arrested.