China tackles food safety problems

Updated: 2007-05-30 09:46

A death sentence meted out to the former head of China's food and drug watchdog, together with the announced formation of a national food-recall system, suggests Beijing intends to send a stern message amid a series of contaminations that has drawn international attention.

The Beijing No. 1 Intermediate People's Court yesterday (May 29) sentenced Zheng Xiaoyu for receiving bribes of cash and gifts worth at least $850,000 from eight pharmaceutical companies during his tenure at the helm of the State Food and Drug Administration, according to a report from the state-run Xinhua news agency. The court justified the death sentence by citing the "huge amount of bribes involved and the great damage inflicted on the country and the public by Zheng's dereliction of duty," according to the Xinhua report. The report didn't name the companies.

Meanwhile, China announced it is setting up a food-recall system, nearly five years after it adopted a law indicating the need for such a mechanism. An official with the SFDA, China's main food-safety agency, confirmed the drafting of a regulation that will be released by the end of the year.

Despite the drama surrounding Mr. Zheng's sentence, the planned recall system may prove more significant for China's first serious attempt to fix recurring food-safety problems. Death sentences for Chinese officials convicted of corruption aren't uncommon. For example, in late 2003, Wang Huaizhong, who as vice provincial governor of Anhui had held roughly the same rank as Mr. Zheng, received a capital sentence for taking bribes totaling 5.17 million yuan ($676,000). He was executed a few months later.

An official at the court confirmed Mr. Zheng's sentence. A recent written request to the court to attend the hearing had gone unanswered.

It wasn't clear whether Mr. Zheng, 62 years old, would appeal. A person who answered the phone at Beijing New Era Law Firm said that Zhang Qing, a lawyer at the firm representing Mr. Zheng, wouldn't accept interview requests. Under Chinese law, a death sentence imposed by an intermediate court is automatically reviewed by a higher court and ultimately must be approved by the state Supreme Court.

China is struggling to contain a snowballing crisis of confidence in the safety of its food and drugs, both at home and abroad. Global concern began growing in late March, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said it had identified a small manufacturer in Jiangsu province as the source of wheat flour contaminated with melamine, a chemical used in plastics and fire retardants that is unfit for use in food. The FDA later said a second Chinese company was also a source of tainted ingredients. The contaminated wheat flour, used to make pet food in the U.S., has been blamed for the deaths of a number of cats and dogs, leading to a massive pet-food recall.

More recently, concern over Chinese imports has spread beyond pet food. Last week, the FDA ordered that imports of toothpaste from China be stopped at the U.S. border until they are tested and proved to be safe. This followed reports that health officials had found diethylene glycol, a potentially dangerous chemical used in products such as antifreeze, in Chinese toothpaste in Panama, the Dominican Republic and Australia.

The safety of China's drugs has also been an issue. In the spring of 2006, more than 10 people fell ill after injections of a gallbladder medicine made by Qiqihar No. 2 Pharmaceutical Co. Five people died. "Those directly responsible for the incident and those who fail to fulfill their supervisory duties will be punished," Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said last May, according to Xinhua. "The pharmaceutical market is in disorder."

A government investigation determined that Qiqihar had used diethylene glycol, the same chemical recently found in the toothpaste, to cut costs in producing the drug. The deaths drew a national outcry, and the company was shut down.

"The Chinese government has always seriously regarded consumer products, especially with regard to the safety of food and medicines, and we treat the protection of our citizens' lives and safety as an important responsibility," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said at a regular briefing yesterday. "We are willing to work with the international community to safeguard the quality and reputation of China's consumer products."

The food-recall regulation will lay out specific recall procedures, though it remains to be seen how effective it will be in preventing food crises. Many agencies are involved in China's food-safety supervision, including the Ministry of Health and the State Administration for Industry and Commerce.

The draft regulation applies only to food production. That is the responsibility of the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, which is in charge of making sure food made in or brought into China meets safety standards, and which is the agency now drafting the food-recall regulation.

Food sold at stalls and restaurants is overseen by other ministries that don't have clear laws on how to recall or address unsafe food.

Chen Xitong, an official with the news division of the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, declined to be interviewed about the regulation.

Separately, 19 government officials linked to one of China's worst cases of lead poisoning have been punished, and the chairman of a lead smelter that flouted safety regulations will face criminal charges.

The case was uncovered in August after a child from Xinsi, a village next to the smelter in western China's rural Gansu province, was diagnosed with high levels of lead. Tests confirmed that nearly 1,000 children from the region -- both from Xinsi and another village, Mouba -- had excessive levels of lead, with dozens requiring hospitalization. They included 62 who were treated for moderate or severe lead poisoning.

Some of the children in Xinsi were found to have lead levels that exceeded 700 micrograms per liter of blood. Chinese authorities say more than 100 micrograms is unhealthy, with 250 micrograms qualifying as poisoning. The World Health Organization says levels of 100 micrograms per liter and above are cause for concern in children. Lead damages the body and causes brain damage by mimicking helpful metals such as calcium, iron and zinc. Exposure is especially harmful to children. Studies show even slightly elevated lead levels can lead to permanent neurological damage and reduced IQ. About 34% of children across China have blood-lead levels that exceed the WHO limit, according to a recent report by researchers at Peking University Health Science Center in Beijing.

Officials from China's central government have blamed local officials for allowing Huixian Hongyu Nonferrous Smelting Co., a unit of the formerly state-owned Gansu Luo Ba Nonferrous Group, to continue operating until late August. The plant, which purified lead ore, ignored basic health and safety regulations even after being ordered to stop earlier last year, according to Xinhua.

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