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China executes former head of food and drug safety watchdog

Updated: 2007-07-11 09:44

BEIJING _ China executed the former head of its food and drug watchdog for approving untested medicine for cash, a show of Beijing's seriousness about product safety, while officials announced moves Tuesday to safeguard food at next summer's Olympic Games.

During Zheng Xiaoyu's tenure as head of the State Food and Drug Administration from 1997 to 2006, the agency approved six medicines that turned out to be fake, and some drug-makers used falsified documents to apply for approvals, according to state media reports Tuesday. One antibiotic caused the deaths of at least 10 people.

"The few corrupt officials of the SFDA are the shame of the whole system and their scandals have revealed some very serious problems," agency spokeswoman Yan Jiangying said at a news conference highlighting efforts to improve China's track record on food and drug safety.

Next year's Beijing Olympics, a great source of pride for China, has also been targeted in the crackdown on unsafe food. Sun Wenxu, an official with the State Administration for Industry and Commerce, told reporters that athletes, coaches, officials and others can be assured of safe meals.

"All the procedures involving Olympic food, including production, processing, packaging, storing and transporting will be closely monitored," Sun said.

Organizers are also taking measures to ensure the athletes' food is free of substances that could trigger a positive result in tests for banned performance enhancing drugs. Many of China's recent food woes have been tied to the purity of ingredients, flavorings, artificial colors, and other additives.

Yan acknowledged that her agency's supervision of food and drug safety remains unsatisfactory and that it has been slow to tackle the problem.

"China is a developing country and our supervision of food and drugs started quite late and our foundation for this work is weak, so we are not optimistic about the current food and drug safety situation," she said.

Fears abroad over Chinese-made products were sparked last year by the deaths of dozens of people in Panama who took medicine contaminated with diethylene glycol imported from China. It was passed off as harmless glycerin.

In El Salvador, officials said Tuesday they have found a harmful substance in a shipment of 360 toothpaste tubes from China that were seized and held at the customs office. Gustavo Villatoro, El Salvador's customs director, said officials found large quantities of diethylene glycol, a thickening agent used in antifreeze, in two different brands of toothpaste.

Chinese-made toothpaste containing diethylene glycol has been banned in North and South America and Asia, though there have been no reports of health problems stemming from the product. Two brands of toothpaste sold in Spain were pulled from the shelves after the substance was found, the European Union said Tuesday.

In North America earlier this year, pet food containing Chinese wheat gluten tainted with the chemical melamine was blamed for the deaths of dogs and cats. Since then, U.S. authorities have turned away or recalled toxic fish, juice containing unsafe color additives and popular toy trains decorated with lead paint.

The list of food scares within China over the past year includes drug-tainted fish, industrial dye used to color egg yolks red, and pork tainted with a banned feed additive.

Zheng's death sentence was unusually heavy even for China, believed to carry out more court-ordered executions than all other nations combined, and indicates the leadership's determination to confront the country's dire product safety record.

Zheng, 63, was convicted of taking cash and gifts worth 6.49 million yuan (US$832,000; euro619,000) when he was in charge of the SFDA.