BEIJING - Chinese retailers pulled eggs off shelves Wednesday and a supplier was ordered to stop exports, amid fears the toxic threat of the chemical melamine was far more widespread than first reported.
Dalian city in northeast China said it had imposed an export ban on Hanwei Group, which sold to Japan and other parts of Asia, after some of its products were found to contain melamine.
"We have told Hanwei to immediately recall all problem eggs, and we have halted the company's exports for the time being," said a statement issued by the city government of Dalian, where Hanwei is based.
The problem emerged over the weekend when Hong Kong authorities said eggs from Hanwei were tainted with melamine, the same chemical that was mixed into China's milk products and led to the deaths of four babies.
Officials and China's state-controlled press reported on Wednesday that eggs from other suppliers had also been found to be contaminated with melamine, which can give food the appearance of higher protein levels.
Against this backdrop, some supermarkets in Beijing, Shanghai and other cities announced they were recalling various brands of eggs, although others appeared unsure what to do with the central government yet to give directives.
A staff member at the Parkson Shopping Centre's supermarket in Beijing said eggs from Hanwei were no longer on sale.
"We will not put them back until we receive test reports from the company that show the eggs we have do not have the same problems," she said.
In Shanghai, a spokeswoman for the Lotus Supermarket chain said all the Kekeda brand of eggs from Hanwei had been removed from all its outlets across the city.
"We are concerned about better protecting consumers' safety," spokeswoman Xiang Jun said.
Meanwhile, authorities in Hong Kong and the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou reported eggs contaminated with melamine had been detected in brands other than Hanwei, and that they came from different areas of China.
The discovery of melamine in eggs has raised concerns that the chemical could be infecting much of China's food chain.
Initially, the problem was believed to be isolated to milk and other dairy products.
In a scandal that made global headlines last month, it emerged melamine, which is normally used to make plastics, had been routinely mixed into watered-down Chinese milk to give it the appearance of higher protein levels.
Four babies died of kidney failure and more than 53,000 others fell ill this year after drinking tainted milk powder and consuming other dairy products.
The scandal led to governments around the world banning or recalling Chinese dairy products after many of them were found to contain melamine.
The discovery of the chemical in eggs raised concerns that it could be in many other Chinese foods, with the suspicion that it was mixed into livestock feed to also give it the appearance of high protein.
Authorities in Dalian said Wednesday melamine may have been mixed into chicken feed and led to the contamination of Hanwei's eggs.
The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization in China told AFP on Tuesday that melamine may be present in a wide range of other farm-raised foods such as meat and fish.
FAO China programme officer Zhang Zhongjun said the organization had asked China's agriculture ministry for answers on whether melamine had been mixed into farming feed.
Premier Wen Jiabao pledged over the weekend that China's food exports would meet international norms and win the trust of people globally, as he promised lessons would be learnt from the milk scandal.
But the agriculture ministry and the body in charge of the nation's food quality have remained silent about the contaminated eggs, leaving some shoppers confused and angry.
"We are just helpless," Liu Lihe, a 70-year-old-retiree told AFP as she shopped in a Beijing supermarket.
"I don't feel completely safe whatever food I buy. I don't know what to buy."