By David Barboza
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
SHANGHAI: Hong Kong officials said that for the second time in a week they had found a batch of eggs imported from China that contain high levels of melamine, the same industrial chemical that has been blamed for contaminating China's milk supplies.
The announcement, which came late Tuesday from the territory's food safety agency, is adding to concerns that melamine contamination may be more widespread in China's food supplies.
While Hong Kong officials cautioned that children and adults would have to eat a large number of tainted eggs in a single day to fall ill, the report is another blow to China's agriculture industry.
China is already struggling to cope with a milk scandal that has sickened over 50,000 children and caused the deaths of at least four infants this year after they consumed melamine-tainted baby milk formula. That case triggered a global recall of foods made with Chinese dairy products.
The Chinese government has tried to move boldly to deal with the crisis, promising to overhaul the nation's food safety system, announcing dozens of arrests and sacking high-ranking government officials, including the head of the nation's top quality inspection agency.
The government has attributed the dairy scandal to organized groups of scam artists who regulators say were intentionally adding melamine to watered-down milk to artificially boost its protein reading in quality tests.
Chinese regulators say they are now investigating how melamine got into eggs. The government is also doing spot checks in supermarkets in some cities, like Shanghai.
Zhang Zhongjun, an official in Beijing with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, said he met Wednesday with officials from China's Agriculture Ministry and was told they believed the problem eggs in Hong Kong were probably contaminated by melamine-tainted animal feed.
But Zhang said the government told him the source of the contamination was not yet known. "It's not clear whether the melamine was added by humans or by pollution," he said.
Some food safety officials say that if chicken feed is contaminated, it is possible hog and fish feed could be also.
The chemical, which is used to produce some plastics and fertilizer, was blamed last year for contaminating Chinese feed ingredients that were exported to the United States and eventually sickened dogs and cats. The case led to a major pet food recall.
On Monday, Wal-Mart Stores said some of its stores had pulled the Hanwei brand of eggs from shelves in China as a precaution after the Hong Kong government finding.
The first batch of eggs that tested positive for high melamine levels by the Hong Kong Center for Food Safety came from a company in Dalian, in northeast China. Officials from the region told Xinhua, the government news agency, that the contamination may have come from local poultry farms.
According to a notice posted on the web site of the Dalian Hanwei Food Co., regulators learned on Sept. 27 that some eggs were contaminated. The company said it was ordered to recall eggs, and exports to Hong Kong were halted by regulators in early October.
The second batch of tainted eggs found in Hong Kong was from the Jingshan Agriproducts Company in Hubei Province. Pan Fengxia, the company's general manager, confirmed by telephone Wednesday that eggs tested in Hong Kong were found to have higher levels of melamine than permitted, but she did not know why. "I never heard that melamine was added into feed or my products," she said. "Never."
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