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
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
"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 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