TOKYO — More than 11,000 people in western Japan were sickened by tainted milk in the country's biggest case of food poisoning in decades, health officials said Thursday.
Bacteria allowed to accumulate in a production-line valve caused the outbreak, which started last week when residents began suffering diarrhea and vomiting after drinking lowfat milk from Japan's largest maker of dairy products.
By Thursday morning, 11,376 people in six western states had gotten sick from three different kinds of milk produced at the plant where the germs were found, according to the Ministry of Health. One hundred and sixty-five people required hospitalization.
It was the largest outbreak of food poisoning in Japan since the central government began recording such cases in 1975, said Narihiko Kawamura, an official in the Health Ministry's Sanitation Division.
It was caused by staphylococcus aureus, or staph, which can sicken people with a weakened immune system but is usually not lethal.
Snow Brand Milk President Tetsuro Ishikawa apologized to consumers and said he would resign on Sept. 30. "I accept responsibility for all the confusion this has caused," he said on national broadcaster NHK.
Officials at Snow Brand Milk said Saturday that they detected the bacteria at a plant in the city of Osaka that supplies lowfat milk and other dairy products to much of western Japan.
The germs had accumulated in a production-line valve that may not have been properly cleaned, Ishikawa said earlier.
Police have begun investigating the possibility of criminal negligence in the case.
Snow Brand Milk products were pulled from shelves around the country, and some Japanese school cafeterias have already stopped using the company's cheese and other products not implicated in the food poisoning case, according to local media reports.