Fake baby formula deadly in China

SHANGHAI, China — Dozens of infants fed fake milk formula have died in the past year in eastern China, sparking the latest consumer crisis in a country where counterfeit products ranging from car brakes to medicine have flooded markets, state media reported yesterday.

Most of the widely reported deaths were in and around the city of Fuyang, and nearly all the victims were children of impoverished, poorly educated farmers who fed their infants baby formula that had almost no nutritional value.

The results were heartbreaking: Some year-old infants were only half the usual size for children their age. Others were months old but weighed less than when they were born.

The deaths have prompted demands from Premier Wen Jiabao for a "thorough investigation and severe punishment" of the formula's manufacturers, according to the Web site of the official China Daily and other media.

The State Food and Drug Administration has sent a team to Fuyang, in the impoverished inland province of Anhui, to find out who made and sold the formula, the reports said.

Up to 200 babies who were fed the formula developed what doctors called "big head disease," causing the infants' heads to grow abnormally large while their bodies wasted away. Some babies died within three days of being fed the formula, while others were hospitalized after parents discovered their children were sick.

The descriptions matched symptoms of edema — swelling caused by an excess of fluid — which is a common feature of starvation.

The reports said that from April last year, about 50-60 infants died from malnutrition after being fed the formula. That number could rise once investigations are completed, the reports said.

Cases of fake baby formula also have plagued better-off countries. In November, German authorities opened a criminal investigation against an employee of Humana Milchunion, a German company that made a kosher baby formula linked by Israeli authorities to two infant deaths.

Humana Milchunion said an error in developing the formula left the soy-based milk substitute with less than one-tenth of the advertised quantity of vitamin B1, which is vital for the development of a baby's central nervous system.

The Israeli Health Ministry officials say more than 20 infants suffered from a disorder caused by a deficiency in the vitamin after drinking the formula, and two died.

The Chinese government's tough action underscores its sensitivity over the rampant — and sometimes dangerous — piracy of products, from brake pads to alcohol to medicine.

Chinese with little money and understanding of the risks are the most common victims of such products.