October 2, 2008

South Korea Says No Locally Sold Baby Formula Tainted With Melamine

Text of report in English by South Korean news agency Yonhap

[By Lee Joon-seung]

Seoul, Oct. 2 (Yonhap) - No domestically sold baby food or formulas have been found to contain the industrial chemical that has so far killed four infants in China, the government said Thursday.

The Korea Food and Drug Administration (KFDA) said it has collected a total of 40 dairy-based products made by five companies and found no traces of melamine in the 19 tested so far. The remaining 21 are being examined with results to be made public soon, it said.

The announcement follows the discovery of minute levels of the harmful chemical in lactoferrin protein imported by Namyang Dairy Products Co. and Pasteur, a subsidiary of Korea Yakult Co.

Lactoferrin is considered a key ingredient in many baby formulas, powdered milk and baby food since it contains antibiotic properties and helps build up an infant's immune system. It is expensive and only used in very small amounts as an additive alongside other main ingredients.

The KFDA said late Wednesday that two companies imported the purified milk product from New Zealand-based Tatua Cooperative Dairy Co., in which melamine levels of 1.9-3.3 parts per million were detected. Lactoferrin from the New Zealand company was used in 12 domestically sold milk-based products. The harmful chemical was not detected in the products themselves, likely because it contained such small amounts of the contaminated milk protein.

Melamine is a nitrogen-based chemical widely used to make kitchen utensils that can pose serious health risks if ingested in large quantities. If added to dairy-based foods, the nitrogen can artificially increase protein levels, translating into higher profits for the manufacturer.

China, which has been rocked by the melamine scare, reported several deaths related to the tainted baby formula, while 54,000 others were hospitalized for kidney stones or other illnesses after ingesting the chemical.

Besides Namyang and Pasteur, Maeil Dairies Co., Ildong Foods and Vilac Co. were also found to have used the New Zealand ingredient.

The findings by the agency under the Health Ministry mirrors a report by the Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries which independently tested 11 baby formulas made by different companies and found no traces of the harmful chemical melamine.

The farm ministry said it is in the process of testing all 642 milk-based products sold in the country, with 125 checked so far.

"As of Wednesday, companies have been ordered not to use lactoferrin made by Tatua, with detailed tests underway for all products made with the ingredient," an official said.

The ministry in charge of South Korea's food industry then said allegations by lawmakers that the country had imported 48 tons of baby formula and dairy products were inaccurate. It pointed out that of the total, seven tons included Korean made milk powder sent back by China, with the remaining 41 tons being oatmeal, rice powder products and malt extracts not considered dairy products.

Local manufacturers, meanwhile, said they have destroyed all Tatua-made lactoferrin as a precaution and will seek new supplies from European and Australian sources. Tatua accounts for roughly half of all supplies, with the country having imported 7,220 kilograms of the material this year. South Korea does not make the product.

Namyang said it is contacting companies in Germany and the Netherlands to purchase the ingredient, while Pasteur said it has engaged in talks with an Australian supplier.

Maeil said that it has been using lactoferrin from a Danish company since October 2007.

Industry insiders said that while switching suppliers is possible, there may be some disruption in the production of formulas and baby food since tighter inspections will increase the time it takes to import the product from abroad.

"Production may be disrupted by up to a month, which could lead to shortages," a market expert said.

Originally published by Yonhap news agency, Seoul, in English 1023 2 Oct 08.

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