Starbucks stops serving milk as China crisis snowballs

BEIJING — Starbucks stopped serving drinks with milk in many Chinese outlets Friday as a crisis over poisoned dairy products that have left four babies dead and thousands of others sick spiralled.

The move by the US coffee chain came amid a government-ordered mass recall of dairy products after an industrial chemical, initially reported to be only in milk powder, was also detected in regular milk, yoghurt and ice cream.

Supermarket shelves across the country were emptied of many products made by Chinese dairy giants Mengniu, Yili and Guangming after the government said the chemical melamine had been discovered in some of their regular milk.

Singapore, meanwhile, said it was suspending the import and sale of all milk and milk products from China after melamine was detected, as the latest in a string of scandals to hit the "Made in China" label snowballed.

Singapore removed Yili brand iced yoghurt and Dutch Lady strawberry flavoured milk from shelves after testing found the chemical in some samples, the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore said late Friday.

"As a precautionary measure, AVA is also suspending the import and sale of all milk and milk products from China with immediate effect," it said.

Mengniu is one of the main suppliers for Starbucks, leading to two-thirds of the chain's 330 outlets in mainland China to stop serving drinks with milk.

"Though the milk we received from Mengniu is not included in the contaminated lots, due to the serious nature of this warning, Starbucks pulled all Mengniu milk offerings until further notice," the Seattle-based company said in a statement.

"The safety of our customers and partners (employees) is of utmost importance." At some Starbucks outlets in Beijing, customers were told only black coffee and tea was being served on Friday.

The Chinese government agency in charge of product quality supervision on Friday issued detailed findings from a comprehensive national check, showing 24 of the 295 batches it tested from the three dairy brands were contaminated.

"The manufacturers should of their own accord recall all products where melamine has been detected," the agency said on its website.

Officials at the firms could not be reached for comment.

The recall came after the government announced on Wednesday that baby milk powder from 22 dairy companies contained traces of melamine, leading to the deaths of four babies and sickening more than 6,200 others.

Symptoms have included kidney stones, failure to pass urine as well as vomiting, although there have been no reports of adults suffering such problems from drinking tainted milk.

Melamine is normally used to make plastics but it can also make milk and other products appear to have a higher protein content than they actually do.

It has become apparent in recent days that people in China have been deliberately watering down the milk to cut costs, then adding in the melamine to boost the protein content and make the product look normal.

Some Chinese press reports said the scam had been going on for years, with China's chaotic and corrupt food safety system unable either to detect or prevent it.

Starbucks customer Cathy Wang called for the government to take the toughest action possible against those responsible.

"The criminals deserve to be sentenced to death and there should be a public trial. They are more evil than murderers," said Wang, a jewellery retailer, as she sipped a cup of black tea in a Beijing Starbucks outlet.

At a Beijing supermarket, Cui Hongchun, 36, expressed concern and fury over previously buying milk for his eight-year-old son from one of the suspect brands.

"I'm very worried about the milk we bought because it claimed to contain high levels of protein," he said. "I will sue them if the milk causes any problems for my boy."

After a meeting late Friday, China's State Council or cabinet issued a circular urging all-out effort to stem the crisis, including more checks on the dairy industry and free medical treatment for sick babies, and vowed to find those responsible, Xinhua news agency said.

The government has already announced the arrest of 18 people for their roles in allegedly providing the melamine or mixing it into milk.


No comments: