Death sentence for corrupt food and drug boss

Mary-Anne Toy Herald Correspondent in Beijing
May 30, 2007
 

CHINA'S former top food and drug regulator has been given the death penalty in an unusually harsh sentence against a backdrop of widening international and domestic concern over the safety of "Made in China" food, pharmaceutical and other products.

Zheng Xiaoyu, head of the State Food and Drug Administration from 1998 until his sacking in 2005, was convicted yesterday in a Beijing court of taking 6.49 million yuan ($1.04 million) in bribes and for dereliction of duty.

Zheng, 62, was arrested last year for accepting kickbacks to fast-track drug approvals. In one case under Zheng's watch, a tainted antibiotic approved by his agency killed at least 10 patients last year.

Ahead of his sentencing, the body in charge of ensuring the safety of China's exports announced it would introduce the country's first food-recall system after an outcry over tainted pet food and toothpaste.

Pet food ingredients spiked with the chemical melamine, have been blamed for the deaths of dogs and cats in the US, which has also stopped all Chinese toothpaste imports after reports that some products sold in Australia, the Dominican Republic and Panama were tainted with diethylene glycol, a chemical used in antifreeze and brake fluid. Three southern US states have also banned imports of catfish from China.

Zheng's sentence, which may be reduced on appeal, is the toughest since 2000, when another official of comparable rank was executed for taking bribes.

The state-controlled English-language China Daily reported that the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine - which is responsible for the safety of Chinese exports - as saying the recall system was a response to the recent safety scandals. The administration's director-general, Wu Jianping, said it would focus on "potentially dangerous and unapproved food products". Draft regulations would be ready by the end of the year and would be in line with international practices, Mr Wu said.

Another senior Chinese official said some foreign businesses also had to share the blame because they had imported illegally made products from China.

Li Yuanping, the administration's head of food imports and exports, said about 56 per cent of the substandard food products imported by the US from China last month were "illegal products" that had not been approved by China's entry-exit inspection and quarantine officials.

"It is these illegal products that have tarnished the reputation of all Chinese food products," he said. In a separate report, the administration revealed that 20 per cent of locally made and sold toys were substandard and injured 10,000 Chinese children every year. China is the world's biggest toy exporter but industry spokespeople said most export products were of higher standard than locally sold ones.

The food and drug administration announced yesterday, before its former boss's death sentence, that it would blacklist food producers who break safety rules as it launched a national inspection campaign.

In China's worst food scandal, 13 babies in Anhui province in the east died in 2004 from malnutrition after being fed fake baby formula. China has been trying to strengthen its food safety since 2002 when it introduced standards for food products and began requiring produces to apply for market access permits.

An administration survey found that almost one-third of China's 450,000 food production companies, mostly smaller companies employing less than 10 people, were unlicensed.