A loose grouping of more than 100 lawyers across China have been offering free legal advice to the families of children who became ill after drinking milk laced with the industrial chemical melamine, said Chang Boyang, one of the lawyers.
The group already has helped the parents of a 1-year-old boy who developed kidney stones after drinking tainted milk to file a lawsuit against the dairy at the center of the crisis, Sanlu Group Co. The court in Henan province has not yet said whether it will hear the suit, believed to be the first since the scandal broke last month.
The government has been struggling to show the public that it is dealing successfully with the scandal, which has battered the country's image, so carefully cultivated during the Beijing Olympics. At least four babies have died and more than 54,000 children have been sickened.
On Monday, the State Council, China's Cabinet and highest government body, acknowledged the dairy industry was "chaotic" and had suffered from a grave lack of oversight, while pledging to monitor milk products from farm to dinner table.
But the government has also imposed controls on media coverage of the crisis, suggesting it does not want it to become a focal point of public dismay.
At least 14 lawyers from Henan province who have been advising victims' families were told by officials from the provincial government's justice department to stop their activities, Chang told the Associated Press in a telephone interview.
"They called me and my boss at my law firm and put pressure on me," Chang said. "They said that this has become a political issue and that I ought to follow the arrangements set out by the government."
"If this suggestion is disobeyed, the lawyer and the firm will be dealt with," Chang quoted the official as saying.
Henan's justice department could not immediately be reached for comment.
Chang said he and the other lawyers from Henan took their names off the list of the group's volunteers but still continue to field calls and offer advice.
"This incident will not affect my work. I was just giving the authorities 'face' by taking my name off the list," Chang said. "Sometimes you've got to learn to compromise."
The State Council has ordered hospitals to provide free treatment for sick infants, but children like the toddler whose parents filed last month's lawsuit are not covered because he became sick before the scandal broke on Sept. 12. Free medical care is only available to those sickened after that date.
Chang said the lawyers have been preparing other clients for a potential joint lawsuit if the government continues to refuse to provide compensation.
Chinese authorities have blamed dairy suppliers for the scandal, saying they added melamine to watered-down milk to fool quality control tests and make the product appear rich in protein. The chemical can cause kidney stones as the body tries to eliminate it and, in extreme cases, lead to life-threatening kidney failure.
The crisis — which has spread overseas with Chinese milk products pulled out of stores in dozens of countries — has forced the government to fire local and even high-level officials for negligence, and make repeated promises to raise product safety standards.
Brazil and Liberia became the latest countries to take action. Brazil barred all Chinese food imports Tuesday, while Liberia banned Chinese dairy products.
Meanwhile, China's iconic White Rabbit candy was back in production after being pulled from shelves in the U.S., Europe and Asia following tests that found it contained melamine, a state-run newspaper reported Tuesday.
Guan Sheng Yuan Co. did not say when the candy would go on sale again, according to China Daily. The company could not be immediately contacted Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Vietnam's vice minister of health, Cao Minh Quang, said Tuesday that 23 milk products had tested positive for melamine. The country has already recalled 300 tons of products, most imported from China.
In the Philippines, traces of melamine were found in a milk product that already had been pulled from store shelves. It's the third Chinese-made milk product sold in the country found to be tainted.