Kent Ewing
Asia Times
August 23, 2010

HONG KONG – Once again, China’s most vulnerable citizens – its babies – are the central figures in a food-safety scandal. Two years ago, milk powder tainted with the industrial chemical melamine killed six infants and left 300,000 more suffering from kidney stones. Now, some Chinese babies are growing breasts, and their parents are blaming the Nasdaq-listed company that produces the baby formula they were drinking.

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But tests conducted by the besieged Ministry of Health have exonerated Synutra International, based in the northern coastal city of Qingdao. No abnormalities were found in samples of Synutra’s milk powder or any other formula that was tested, the ministry announced on Sunday. Laboratory tests of 42 Synutra samples found no trace of added hormones that could have led to the premature development of four infant girls. But this may in fact increase the parents’ anxiety: if this was not caused by tainted milk then by what?

The health ministry launched the probe after local authorities in the central province of Hubei reportedly refused parents’ demands for an investigation. Three infant girls in the provincial capital of Wuhan and another in Beijing developed breasts after allegedly drinking the Synutra formula. The girls, aged four to 15 months, were found to have levels of the hormones estradiol and prolactin (which stimulate the production of breast milk) exceeding that of an average adult woman. Last week, Chinese media reported that similar cases were also found in other provinces such as Guangdong, Hunan, Jiangxi, Sichuan, Shanxi and Liaoning.

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A panel of nine endocrine, pediatric and food-safety experts were assembled by the ministry at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention to study the case. The team gathered samples from the markets in Wuhan and Beijing where the suspect milk powder was purchased and from the homes of the infant girls. Samples of some other brands were also gathered from the markets and tested.

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