HONG KONG (Reuters) - The World Health Organization and UNICEF said on Thursday China's contaminated milk powder scandal was "deplorable" as more countries in Asia and Europe banned imports of Chinese milk products.
Beijing is battling public alarm and international dismay after close to 13,000 Chinese children crowded hospitals, sick from infant milk formula tainted with melamine, a cheap industrial chemical that can be used to cheat quality checks.
"Deliberate contamination of foods intended for consumption by vulnerable infants and young children is particularly deplorable," the World Health Organization and UNICEF, the United Nations agency for children, said in a joint statement.
But the two agencies said Beijing's plan to overhaul its food safety would help prevent a recurrence.
"We are confident that swift and firm actions are being taken by China's food safety authorities to investigate this incident fully."
"We also expect that following the investigation and in the context of the Chinese government's increasing attention to food safety, better regulation of foods for infants and young children will be enforced," the two organizations said in a statement.
The WHO and UNICEF also urged mothers to breast feed their infants, a need further underscored by "alarming examples" of tainted formula scandals in China and around the world.
While the scandal has triggered arrests and official sackings in China, the repercussions began to spread overseas.
Taiwan Health Minister Lin Fang-yue tendered his resignation after 25 tonnes of potentially tainted milk powder were imported to the island, the Taiwanese Central News Agency reported.
China's poor track record in coming clean on past product safety scandals including toys, toothpaste, pharmaceutical and pet food ingredients has seriously dented the country's credibility.
Despite Beijing's reassurances its milk products are now safe and the situation was under control, several countries continued to take steps against milk imports from there.
India became the largest and most populous country to announce a ban on Chinese milk and milk products on Thursday, with the ban to remain in force for three months.
Vietnam and Nepal halted sales of all Chinese milk products and would now increase testing of such imports. Vietnam health officials warned tainted Chinese milk may have been sold in its remote, impoverished central region.
South Korea started from Wednesday to recall products with melamine after the Korea Food and Drug Administration found tainted rice cookies made for a South Korean confectionary by one of its divisions in China.
Singapore said it had tested melamine in five more products including two Dutch Lady fruit-flavored milk products.
Kraft Foods took out a full-page advertisement in Singapore's Straits Times newspaper to say its Oreo products were safe and did not contain milk ingredients from China.
Global coffee giant Starbucks said it had started using fresh milk from a Hong Kong milk supplier in 55 of its stores in southern China, ditching its usual China supplier.
In Europe, France banned all food items containing Chinese milk products. The European Food Safety Authority is expected to announce this week whether processed items containing milk products from China pose a risk.
In the latest update by China's quality control agency on its website (www.aqsiq.gov.cn), it said 235 samples of carton milk and drinking yoghurt produced since September 14 and sold across the country had shown no signs of the toxic chemical melamine.
Nitrogen-rich melamine can be added to substandard or watered-down milk to fool quality checks, which often use nitrogen levels to measure the amount of protein in milk.
The chemical is used in pesticides and in making plastics.
So far, four deaths have been blamed on kidney stones and agonizing complications caused by the toxic milk.
Additional reporting by Tan Ee Lyn in Hong Kong, Kevin Lim in Singapore, Francois Murphy in Paris, Ho Binh Minh in Hanoi, Biman Mukherji in New Delhi, Kim Junghyun in Seoul, and Gopal Sharma in Kathmandu; Editing by Nick Macfie and Sanjeev Miglani