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Defective Baby-food Formula Kills 3 and Sets off Panic in Israel, New York

Frenzied families rush to hospitals. Grim-faced scientists call news conferences. Police mount nighttime raids. In Israel, the Mossad launches a probe of a possible international terrorist connection.

No, it’s not another outbreak of the deadly SARS virus.

It’s a baby-food scandal.

Panic and precautions followed revelations this week that a popular kosher baby-food formula was defective, implicated in Israel in the deaths of three babies and the hospitalization of at least another 17.

Israel’s Health Ministry ordered the product, called Remedia Super Soya 1, removed from store shelves and issued a nationwide alert. More than 10,000 worried parents called hotlines operated by the baby-food company and Israel’s health maintenance organizations.

Bearing the kosher certification of Israel’s fervently Orthodox Eida Charedit, the product is marketed in Israel’s fervently Orthodox neighborhoods.

In Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods in the United States where the kosher formula is sold, ambulances drove through the streets warning parents by loudspeaker — on the Sabbath — about the defect.

“How could this sort of thing happen in our country? Why did no one check?” one Israeli columnist, Michal Gurevitch, asked in the daily Ma’ariv newspaper. “Baby food is meant to be the safest thing there is. Because if that is not safe, nothing is safe.”

Israeli lab tests found Remedia lacking in Vitamin B1, also known as thiamine, whose deficiency in infants can cause vomiting, diarrhea, seizures and lack of appetite. The resulting symptoms of encephalopathy or beriberi can cause irreparable damage and death. Israeli experts said the vitamin may have been further thinned by natural decay in the formula.

B1, vital for the development of the central nervous system in babies, was listed as an ingredient on the packages of the formula, a kosher, soy-based milk substitute popular in Israel’s fervently Orthodox communities.

The German company that makes Remedia, Humana, at first denied responsibility for the faulty product, standing by the nutritional integrity of its formula.

But company officials admitted Tuesday that the baby food contained less than 10 percent of the quantity of the vitamin that was on the label.

“What we are looking at here is an unfortunate chain of events,” said Albert Grosse Frie, a spokesman for the Humana Milchunion group. He stressed that this was a one-time mistake for the company, and “does not affect any of our other products.”

Two class-action lawsuits in Israel already have been filed against Remedia, which is majority owned by the American H.J. Heinz Co.

Heinz tried to distance itself from the scandal.

“We don’t run” Remedia, said Debbie Foster, vice president of corporate communication for Heinz. “We’re a shareholder company with Remedia. It’s a very sorrowful situation. It’s really quite tragic.”

Compounding the panic in Israel was the fact the manufacturing firm, Humana, was German and the fatal disease was beriberi, an ailment that ran rampant in World War II internment camps.

The Shin Bet internal security service and the Mossad were alerted to the possibility of sabotage, raising fears of international terrorism.

Meanwhile, a Health Ministry delegation flew to Germany to inspect the plant where the formula is made. Israel’s state prosecutor, Edna Arbel, authorized a police investigation of Remedia on Monday.

An estimated 5,000 Israeli infants have used the formula in recent months. After the revelations, clinics in Israel reported a rush on their emergency B-1 injections.

In New York on Saturday, the Hatzolah Volunteer Ambulance Corps dispatched its drivers on the Jewish Sabbath to patrol the streets of Orthodox neighborhoods to warn parents. Because it was a life-or-death matter, the Sabbath prohibition against driving did not apply, explained Hatzolah’s president, Heshey Jacob.

The handful of stores in Brooklyn that carried Remedia products removed them after New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene issued a public warning. The department sent a health alert to physicians throughout the city and news release bearing a photograph of a Remedia can.

“We have not yet seen cases of illness linked with this product in New York City, and we do not yet conclusively know whether Remedia has been used here,” Commissioner Dr. Thomas Frieden said in the news release.

“While Remedia may not pose an immediate health risk to children, vitamin B1 deficiency does have serious health consequences. If you have fed your infant soy-based Remedia, see your physician immediately to determine if your child needs vitamin supplements,” the statement said.

Frieden said it is important to be clear that Remedia does not have a contagious or toxic effect.

“The formula, according to available information, is not toxic,” he said. “Only through the exclusive use of Remedia can the affected formula be harmful.”

In Israel, retribution against the company came swiftly. Police already have raided Remedia’s Israeli offices, and officials said company executives could face charges of criminal negligence.

Remedia had not informed Israel’s Health Ministry that the formula’s ingredients had been changed in April, according to the ministry’s food and nutrition service director.

On Tuesday, a Remedia attorney told the Knesset’s Labor and Social Affairs Committee that Humana removed B1 from the formula on the assumption that the formula already contained a sufficient amount of the vitamin.

Remedia “deceived and betrayed the trust of the Health Ministry and the public, but it was impossible to know whether this was intentional or not,” said the ministry’s director general, Boaz Lev.

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