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Chinese top official steps down over milk powder that sickened over 53,000 infants

The head of China's product quality watchdog resigned Monday in the wake of a scandal over tainted baby formula that sickened nearly 53,000 infants, highlighting a breakdown in the country's food safety system only a year after a major overhaul.

The official Xinhua News Agency said Li Changjiang had stepped down with the approval of China's Cabinet. Wang Yong replaced Li as the director of the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine.

The agency is responsible for ensuring that China's food supply chain is safe. His resignation comes after the industrial chemical melamine blamed for kidney stones and kidney failure in babies was found in infant formula and other milk products from 22 of China's dairy companies.

Although Xinhua said only that Li had resigned after infants had become sick after consuming tainted milk products, the widespread nature of the crisis reflects a systemic breakdown in supervision of the dairy industry.

It was only a year ago that China's product safety system was overhauled with new regulations and procedures in an attempt to restore consumer confidence and preserve export markets after a string of recalls and warnings abroad over tainted toothpaste, faulty tires and other goods.

In an indication of Beijing's determination to improve product safety, the government executed the disgraced chief of China's food and drug agency, who was convicted of accepting bribes in exchange for letting fake medicine into the domestic market.

Yet the latest crisis indicated that problems were still slipping through the cracks.

The discovery of the tainted milk is especially damaging because Sanlu Group Co., the company at the heart of the scandal, is China's biggest producer of powdered milk and such large companies are expected to act as industry role models for safety and quality.

Infant formula and other milk products have been pulled from stores around the country and Chinese goods including liquid milk, instant coffee mix and milk-based candy have been banned around Asia.

On Monday the World Health Organization urged stricter monitoring of the industry.

Sanlu and several other leading companies found to have produced tainted milk had been given inspection-free status by China's product quality watchdog.

That privilege has since been rescinded, but WHO China representative Hans Troedsson stressed it was only a first step and that quality issues can crop up at any point in the supply chain, from the farm to the retail outlet.

"It's clearly something that is not acceptable and needs to be rectified and corrected," he said.

The number of sick children reported by the government jumped Sunday from 6,200 to nearly 53,000.

More than 80 percent of the 12,892 children hospitalized in recent weeks were 2 years old or younger, the Health Ministry said. It said 104 were in serious condition.

Another 39,965 children received outpatient treatment at hospitals and were considered "basically recovered," the ministry said.

Four babies' deaths have been blamed on tainted milk powder.

The ministry did not explain the sudden increase in the number of cases but it suggested health officials were combing through hospital records from May through August to trace the origins of the contamination. The deaths of the infants linked to tainted baby formula occurred in those months, the Health Ministry said.

WHO was having discussions with Chinese officials on how to strengthen its food quality system, Troedsson said. Local authorities need increased training to create a "more robust reporting system," he said.

"It is important to know if information was withheld, where and why it was withheld," he said. "Was it ignorance by provincial authorities or was it that they neglected to report it? Because if it was ignorance there is a need to have much better training and education ... if it is neglect then it is of course more serious."

Investigators say some raw milk suppliers, in hopes of making more profit, may have watered down their milk to increase volume and then added melamine, which is high in nitrogen and artificially appears to boost protein content.