18 arrested in Hong Kong milk bribery case

HONG KONG, May 10, 2011 (AFP) - Hong Kong's graft watchdog says it has arrested 18 people who ran a milk powder bribery syndicate, as the city struggled with shortages linked to a tainted milk scare in mainland China.

The Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) said late Monday that it had detained 15 suspects in recent days as part of operation "Sunshine", in addition to three others arrested last month.

The suspects included six staff at an unnamed supermarket chain and four traders, with the latter accused of offering bribes in exchange for information on the availability of milk powder at the grocery stores, the agency said.

The supermarket employees also helped the traders buy milk powder in bulk quantities, the ICAC said, adding that it seized over 1,000 cans of powder during the operation.

The South China Morning Post reported that the employees worked at ParknShop, one of Hong Kong's largest supermarket chains.

"At the moment we don't have any comment on this incident," a ParknShop spokesman told AFP on Tuesday.

Hong Kong saw a severe shortage of milk powder earlier this year as mainland Chinese shoppers flocked to the teeming city of seven million over fears about Chinese-made products.

Mainland China's dairy industry was rocked in 2008 when at least six babies died and another 300,000 became ill from milk tainted with the industrial chemical melamine.

Melamine had been added to give the appearance of higher protein levels.

Last month, Beijing said three people died and 34 were left ill in northwestern China from food poisoning believed linked to tainted milk, the latest food safety scare in the country.