SHANGHAI -- Dozens of infants fed fake baby formula with almost no nutritional value have died in the last year in eastern China, sparking the latest consumer crisis in a country where counterfeit products ranging from car brakes to medicine have flooded markets, state media reported yesterday.
Most of the reported deaths were in and around the city of Fuyang, and nearly all the victims were children of impoverished, poorly educated farmers.
The results were heartbreaking: Some year-old infants were only half the usual size for children their age. Others were months old but weighed less than when they were born.
The deaths have prompted demands from Premier Wen Jiabao for a "thorough investigation and severe punishment" of the formula's manufacturers, according to the Web site of the official China Daily and other media.
The State Food and Drug Administration has sent a team to Fuyang, in the impoverished inland province of Anhui, to find out who made and sold the formula, the reports said.
Up to 200 babies who were fed the formula developed what doctors called "big head disease," causing the infants' heads to grow abnormally large while their bodies wasted away. Some babies died within three days of being fed the formula, while others were hospitalized after parents discovered their children were sick.
The descriptions matched symptoms of edema -- swelling caused by an excess of fluid -- which is a common feature of starvation.
The reports said that from April last year, 50 to 60 infants died from malnutrition after being fed the formula. That number could rise once investigations are completed, the reports said.
The fake formula was purchased from shops in Fuyang, a city in Anhui where farmers earn about $240 a year.
Some samples of the forumula contained only 1 percent protein, which is 1/18th of the standard amount in formula, said a specialist with the Fuyang Health Department's Food Supervision Bureau. Important minerals such as iron and zinc were absent, said the specialist, who declined to give her name.
She said the manufacturers had taken advantage of rural consumers' naivete about health and consumer issues.
"Rural people are very vulnerable. They don't ask for receipts, don't suspect the authenticity of products, and are more liable to be cheated," she said.
Approval seals and other documentation on packaging was usually false, she said. Letters to manufacturers were returned because the address listed on the packaging was false, she said.
Local officials who raided markets in Fuyang over the weekend seized thousands of bags of suspect formula, including products without health board approval stamps. Inspectors recorded at least three dozen different brands of fake formula, the reports said. One, Aumeng Brand, purportedly from the northeastern province of Heilongjiang, sold for $1 a bag, but contained just one-sixth the standard protein content, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.