Chinese shoppers pass tins of milk powder on sale at a supermarket in Hefei, east China's Anhui province on September 26, 2010. AFP Photo

BEIJING: In the latest food scare to hit China, authorities in a northeastern city have found bean sprouts tainted with banned food additives to make the vegetables grow faster and look shinier, state media said on Wednesday.

The Legal Daily newspaper said in an online report that police in Shenyang had seized 40 tons of bean sprouts treated with the chemical compounds sodium nitrite and urea, as well as antibiotics and a plant hormone called 6-benzyladenine. Police arrested 12 people in connection with the seizure from six distribution centers and other locations around the city over three days last week.

The haul amounted to nearly one-third of all the bean sprouts in the city's markets, it said.

Sodium nitrite hinders bacteria growth in food but can be toxic for humans and is carcinogenic. The plant hormone that was used is also banned as a food additive, the newspaper said.

China has been hit by numerous food safety scandals in recent years, ranging from seafood tainted with illegal antimicrobials to baby formula laced with melamine, an industrial chemical.

China overhauled its food safety management system in response to the baby formula scandal in 2008 that killed six and sickened 300,000 children, but problems continue to arise, including the discovery last year of more melamine-tainted dairy.

The Legal Daily said Shenyang's problem with ''poison bean sprouts'' has been going on for years, and was even the subject of a local media report three years ago, but authorities failed to crack down at that time.

The suspects allegedly bathed the bean sprouts in chemicals to make them grow bigger and look more appealing, boosting profits, the paper said.

The Shenyang Municipal government referred calls about the crackdown to local police who requested, but did not immediately respond to, a faxed list of questions about the campaign.

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