Investigators suspect the victims consumed vinegar that was put in two plastic barrels that had previously been used to store toxic antifreeze, the official Xinhua News Agency reported Monday.
It said the mass food poisoning occurred Saturday night in a village close to Hotan city in Xinjiang, a border region that abuts Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia. The victims were Muslims who were sharing an evening meal after the daily fast observed during the holy month of Ramadan.
Xinhua said children as young as 6 were among the dead. One person among the 120 sickened was still in critical condition.
Authorities were still testing to confirm the source of the poisoning, it said.
China’s food safety record has been battered by the rampant use of illegal or substandard additives by unscrupulous food producers. Milk powder laced with the industrial chemical melamine killed at least six children and sickened 300,000 in 2008. Producers added the nitrogen-rich melamine powder so their milk would seem higher in protein.
Revenge attacks using rat poison or other chemicals are also common in China, where access to firearms and other deadly weapons is tightly controlled.
In April, three children died and 35 others were sickened by milk tainted with nitrite. An investigation showed that a local dairy farmer had put the poison into their competitor’s milk supply.
But accidental contamination is also a problem, caused by low hygiene standards, particularly in rural areas, and weak quality control by regulators.