Thursday, 29 January 2009

China: Death over milk, but no official answers

Two men have been sentenced to death in China and 19 people jailed over a milk contamination scandal that killed six infants and left hundreds of thousands with chronic health problems.

However there has been no public accounting for how the Sanlu Group was permitted to sell milk powder cut with plastic chemicals -- and to continue supplying hundreds of tons of the product for five weeks after the contamination was revealed in official testing.

Zhang Yujun and Geng Jinping were sentenced to death for producing and selling baby milk powder laced with melamine powder to artificially boost test results meant to measure protein levels.

Chinese government newsagency Xinhua reported that Zhang Yujun was convicted of endangering public safety for producing 770 tons of "protein powder" and selling more than 600 tons.

Geng Jinping, convicted of manufacturing and selling toxic food, sold Sanlu more than 900 tons of milk tainted by 434 kg of protein powder.

Four former Sanlu executives received sentences ranging from five years to life imprisonment, according to the Xinhua report.

"The Ministry of Health has put the number of infants who died after drinking melamine contaminated milk products at six," the report said.

"Another 296,000 infants suffered kidney stones and other urinary problems."

Official reports blamed Sanlu for continuing to sell contaminated milk products after test results revealed it had been supplied with suspect "protein powder".

"The management of Sanlu decided to continue producing baby milk powder containing melamine after the Hebei Provincial Entry-Exit Inspection and Quarantine Bureau confirmed on Aug. 1 last year that samples sent by the company were contaminated," Xinhua said.

"From Aug. 2 to Sept. 12 last year, Sanlu Group produced 904 tons of melamine-tainted baby formula powder and sold 813 tons of the tainted products, making 47.5 million yuan."

Selective blame
Western media reported that local government officials ordered the state-controlled company to keep quiet and prevented it from recalling the products from sale ahead of the 2008 Olympic games.

The contamination was only acted on when the New Zealand government reported it to Chinese authorities. New Zealand company Fonterra had a 43 per cent stake in Sanlu, which it has since written off.

And while 22 companies were said to be involved in the scandal, only executives from Sanlu and a range of middlemen have so far been charged, prompting accusations of corruption or scapegoating.

China's english language media also did not report accusations against the government by the families of victims of the scandal.

"I think the government officials involved should shoulder the criminal responsibilities they deserve," said Zhao Lianhai, whose three year-old son was affected by the milk and who has campaigned for compensation.

"They should be put on trial as well, but I'm sorry to say that nothing is happening," he said, according to the UK's Daily Telegraph.

Related stories:
China: Executions to preserve order, control -- 12 December 2008
China executes drug regulator -- 12 July, 2007

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