In what appears to be the biggest food safety crackdown in years, the government also said it had closed 238 illegal feed makers in a series of nationwide sweeps that involved more than 369,000 government inspectors.
The aggressive moves come amid growing worries that the Chinese animal feed industry could be contaminated by melamine, endangering the national food supply and posing a health threat to consumers.
Over the past week and a half, eggs produced in three different Chinese provinces were found to be tainted with high levels of melamine, a chemical commonly used to make plastic and fertilizer. And in September, melamine-tainted milk supplies were blamed for sickening more than 50,000 children and causing at least four deaths in China.
Regulators in the southern province of Guangdong, which is home to about 80 million people and a major manufacturing center near Hong Kong, said they had discovered six tons of melamine-tainted animal feed.
An official at the Agriculture Ministry said that the government would mete out harsh punishments to those who were deliberately adding melamine to animal feed.
"It is illegal for any individual or any enterprise to add melamine into feed, and we will crack down uncompromisingly on melamine," Wang Zhicai, director of the animal husbandry and livestock bureau at the Agriculture Ministry, said Saturday, according to a transcript of his news conference.
However, government officials also said that China's animal feed supply was largely safe and that the quality of feed had improved in recent years. They insisted that only a small number of rogue operators had deliberately added melamine to feed, often using it as cheap filler in order to save money.
The government said something similar early last year when several animal feed makers were caught exporting melamine-tainted feed ingredients to the U.S. and other countries, resulting in contaminated pet food supplies that sickened and killed cats and dogs.
That case led to the largest pet-food recall in U.S. history. Melamine dealers in China said in interviews last year that it was not uncommon for animal feed operators to purchase melamine scrap, a cheaper form of melamine waste, and use it as filler.
A massive food safety campaign was announced in China late last year, with inspectors closing down thousands of substandard and illegal food and feed operators. Yet this year melamine has been found in animal feed, dairy products and eggs in China, triggering food recalls and warnings all over Asia and even in the United States.
The Chinese government has responded by firing high-ranking regulators and by arresting dozens of people suspected of intentionally adding melamine to milk supplies. The government has repeatedly promised to ensure the safety of the Chinese food supply.
However, the nation's food safety woes are troubling global food companies that import from China and consumers around the world who fear that melamine may turn up in their food. Although China is not a leading dairy exporter, it is one of the biggest food exporters in the world.
Still, some food safety officials are asking consumers not to be too alarmed because although the melamine-contaminated eggs found in Hong Kong exceeded the government limit, a young child would have to consume about two dozen in a single day to become sick.
The concentrations in some of the Chinese baby milk supply, however, were far higher and caused kidney stones or renal failure in tens of thousands of children.
From the November 10, 2008, Prepared Foods e-Flash