BEIJING - The authorities have begun an investigation into parents' claims that a brand of milk powder has caused a small number of babies to grow breasts, a Health Ministry spokesman said on Tuesday.
Deng Haihua said his ministry takes the consumer concerns seriously and have already arranged for officials to start testing samples of the milk powder produced in 1998 by Synutra, a dairy company in Qingdao, a coastal city in east China's Shandong province.
"They have organized medical experts to carry out clinical tests on the affected girls, and do a medical investigation to analyze the cause of the girls' illness," Deng said at a news conference.
He promised timely publication of the investigation results.
Parents and doctors in Hubei reported earlier this month their fears that milk powder produced by Synutra had caused at least three infant girls to develop prematurely.
The case of three infant girls' prematurely growing breasts in Wuhan has aroused nationwide panic among parents who fed their babies the same batch of Synutra infant formula.
Medical tests proved that in those three infants the levels of two hormones - estradiol and prolactin - were far above the national standard.
The event came as another blow to the fragile credibility of China's dairy industry.
The industry was hammered in 2008 when milk laced with melamine, a chemical added to milk products to make their protein content seem higher, led to the deaths of six babies. About 300,000 others were sickened.
Tuesday's Beijing Times quoted a doctor from Beijing Children's Hospital as saying that many parents had brought their infant daughters to check for premature puberty in the past two days.
Wang Gang, a father of a 1-year-old infant girl in Beijing, was furious at Synutra when he found that his daughter showed symptoms of premature puberty.
"I was so frightened that I took my daughter to the hospital the other day," he told China Daily when he was waiting for the result of the medical tests on Wednesday. "I just hope she is not seriously affected."
Similar cases were also reported in Guangdong, Shandong, Anhui, Jiangxi and Beijing, the Beijing News reported.
Causes for children's sexual prematurity are complicated and could be caused by a wide range of factors, Deng said. Experts have no way to definitely determine if food or environmental factors were involved, he said.
Estrogen hormones are forbidden in milk powder products, he said.
The Ministry of Agriculture has formulated test procedures for estrogen hormones and had provided them to Hubei authorities.
"The harmful effects of precocious puberty are reversible," Dr Peter Embarek, a food safety specialist with the World Health Organization, told China Daily on Tuesday.
"But premature sexual development also could cause disruptions of the proper functioning of human bodies, even cancer."
On its official website, Nasdaq-listed Synutra said in a statement that the company has never added man-made hormones or any other illegal substances to its milk products, and that all its products are safe.
Company officials said they are planning to sue Phoenix TV, which was among the first and most persistent media to report the Synutra hormone suspicions.
China Daily - Xinhua