BEIJING, China (AP) -- A Chinese dairy that sold baby milk powder linked to kidney stones in infants and one death knew weeks before it ordered a recall that the product contained a banned chemical, the Health Ministry said Saturday, as the number of sick babies rose to 140.

A Health Ministry statement gave no indication as to why Sanlu Group, China's biggest milk powder producer, failed to warn consumers immediately.

Employees who answered the phone Saturday at the ministry's news office and at China's product safety agency said they had no more information.

In August, Sanlu's testing "revealed melamine in the baby milk powder and showed that it was contaminated," a ministry statement said. It was not known when Sanlu alerted authorities about its findings.

The dairy only announced a recall Thursday of 700 tons of formula made before August 6.

A New Zealand dairy cooperative that owns part of Sanlu said Friday it believed none of the tainted powder was exported.

Kidney problems in infants were reported as early as mid-July but authorities failed to launch a food safety investigation, the official Xinhua News Agency said. Another news report said the dairy received complaints as early as March.

Investigators are questioning 78 people about the contamination, which occurred when dairy farmers added melamine to the milk, possibly to make its protein content appear higher, Xinhua said. Melamine is rich in nitrogen, and standard tests for protein in bulk food ingredients measure nitrogen levels.

The incident reflects China's enduring problems with product safety despite a shake up of its regulatory system following a spate of warnings and recalls about tainted toothpaste, faulty tires and other goods.

The biggest group of victims of dangerous goods has been in China itself, where shoddy or counterfeit products are common. Infants, hospital patients and others have been killed or injured by tainted or fake milk, medicines, liquor and other products.

The number of infants suffering kidney stones after being fed the Sanlu formula has risen to 140, the official China Daily newspaper said. Some 59 were in Gansu, a poor province in the northwest, where one child died.

Xinhua cited a Gansu provincial health department spokesman as saying he received reports on July 16 that 16 infants under a year old, all of whom drank Sanlu milk, were suffering a rare kidney ailment. He said the Health Ministry launched an epidemic survey.

"However, there seemed no food and safety survey had been done. Otherwise, the health, and even lives, of many infants could have been saved," Xinhua said.

A Sanlu manager quoted by the newspaper Beijing News said the dairy received complaints in March and June but could not track down the problem.

"We finally imported foreign equipment in August and finally found the milk powder contained melamine," the manager, identified only by the surname Wang, was quoted as saying.

Another Sanlu manager quoted Friday on the Web site of a leading Chinese business magazine, Caijing, said it refrained from making an announcement because some grocers refused to return tainted powder. The report did not say why that prevented a warning.

Sanlu buys milk from a nationwide network of suppliers that includes 60,000 family farms, according to the company's Web site.

Tainted a. 污染的;感染的;腐敗的

powder n. 粉,粉末

melamine n.【化】密胺;三聚氰胺

contaminated a. 受毒害的

formula n. 慣例,常規;準則,方案

protein a. (含)蛋白質的

nitrogen n. 【化】氮[U]

bulk n. 體積,容積

regulatory a. 管理的;控制的;調整的

spate n. 突然迸發,一陣

faulty a. 有缺點的;不完美的

shoddy a. 劣等的

counterfeit a. 偽造的;假冒的

province n. 省,州[C]

grocer n. 食品雜貨商

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