By Sui-Lee Wee and Adam Jourdan
BEIJING/SHANGHAI (Reuters) - U.S. foodmaker H.J. Heinz Co has recalled some infant food products in China after a local watchdog said they contained excessive levels of lead, threatening to dent the company's reputation in a country highly sensitive to food safety.
Heinz said on Monday it had recalled four batches of a cereal product for infants after regulators in eastern China said they had found lead that exceeded regulation levels in its AD Calcium Hi-Protein Cereal.
Infant products are particularly vulnerable to food safety scares in China after powdered milk tainted with the industrial chemical melamine led to the deaths of at least six infants in 2008.
"I would think that Heinz is in a lot of trouble right now because parents are unforgiving of any quality control problems in baby and infant food products," said Shaun Rein, Shanghai-based managing director of China Market Research Group.
An official at the Food and Drug Administration in Zhejiang province declined to give details on the levels of lead in the Heinz product, but said that it would release further information about the case in the coming days.
Standard levels for infant products should be below 0.2 milligrams per kg, according to a 2010 government report.
Heinz, known globally for its ketchup and baked beans, said the recall of the product was a precautionary measure.
The company, which was bought out by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc and private equity firm 3G Capital last year, added that the issue was linked to a skimmed soybean powder ingredient used in the product.
"This relates to an isolated regional withdrawal in eastern China," company spokesman Michael Mullen said in emailed comments to Reuters. "Extensive testing confirmed that no other Heinz baby food varieties are affected."
Heinz did not respond to phone and email requests for further comment on Tuesday.
Food safety scares are a relatively common occurrence in China, with KFC-parent Yum Brands Inc, retailer Wal-Mart Stores Inc and French dairy Danone SA all taking a hit in the last year over food safety concerns.
The Zhejiang FDA has said the problem affected 1,472 boxes of cereal in the province and that Heinz had told the agency it would destroy another 153 boxes that are sealed in a warehouse in the southern city of Guangzhou.
The regulator urged Heinz to compensate its customers over the recall. The affected cereal product is aimed at infants aged between six months and three years, according to the packaging.
Heinz apologized for inconvenience caused to consumers and moved to assure shoppers that the firm was committed to food quality and safety.
Foreign brands do well in China's baby food market, because parents are willing to pay a premium to guarantee quality and safety. The market, excluding infant milk formula, is worth around 8 billion yuan ($1.3 billion), according to a May report from Huidian Research.
Chinese parents are already highly sensitive to metal contamination in food, which is often linked to the country's high levels of soil and water pollution, one of the main ways metals gets into cereals and other crops.
Analysts said the presence of lead - widely known by parents to be harmful for children - would create a "scare factor" even if no people suffered adverse effects from the products. China has previously had issues of cadmium and lead metals in food.
Consumers took to China's Twitter-like microblog Weibo on Tuesday, questioning whether the recall was just the beginning of the issue, while others said they were concerned about long-term effects on their children.
Experts say exposure to lead is particularly dangerous for children, inhibiting intellectual and physical development. It can cause poor concentration, disruptive behavior and even death when subjected to high levels.
A soil survey in April showed that nearly a fifth of China's farmland was contaminated by toxic heavy metals and chemicals, and that more than 33,000 sq km (12,740 sq miles) – an area the size of Belgium - were unfit for agricultural use.
(1 US dollar = 6.1360 Chinese yuan)
(Reporting by Sui-Lee Wee and Adam Jourdan; additional reporting by David Stanway; Editing by David Goodman and Alex Richardson)