By ALEXA OLESEN
The Associated Press
Tuesday, July 10, 2007; 2:24 AM
BEIJING -- China on Tuesday executed the former head of its food and drug watchdog who had become a symbol of the country's wide-ranging problems on product safety.
Zheng Xiaoyu's execution was confirmed by state television and the official Xinhua News Agency.
"The few corrupt officials of the (State Food and Drug Administration) are the shame of the whole system and their scandals have revealed some very serious problems," SFDA spokeswoman Yan Jiangying said at a news conference held to highlight efforts to improve China's track record on food and drug safety.
"We should seriously reflect and learn lessons from these cases. We should step up our efforts to ensure food and drug safety, which is what we are doing now and what we will do in the future," Yan said about Zheng and a separate case involving Cao Wenzhuang, the administration's former pharmaceutical registration department director.
Zheng was sentenced to death in May for taking bribes to approve an antibiotic blamed for at least 10 deaths and other substandard medicines. Cao was given a death sentence last month with a two-year reprieve for accepting bribes and dereliction of duty.
Such suspended death sentences usually are commuted to life in prison if the convict is deemed to have reformed.
Zheng's death sentence was unusually heavy even for China, believed to carry out more court-ordered executions than all other nations combined, and likely indicates the leadership's determination to confront the country's dire product safety record.
Yan said the food and drug administration was working to tighten its safety procedures and create a more transparent operating environment. But the administration acknowledged that its supervision of food and drug safety is unsatisfactory and that it has been slow to tackle the problem, but vowed to improve.
"As a developing country, China's current food and drug safety situation is not very satisfactory because supervision of food and drug safety started late. Its foundation is weak so the supervision of food and drug safety is not easy," it said in a statement at the start of the news conference.
China has been under pressure domestically and internationally to improve its quality controls after a series of health scares attributed to substandard Chinese products, including exported tainted food and fake drugs.
Chinese officials already have said the country faces social unrest and a further tarnished image abroad unless it improves the quality and safety of its food and medicine.
The industry regulator, the State Food and Drug Administration, has announced a series of measures to tighten safety controls and closed factories where illegal chemicals or other problems were found.
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 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.
Chinese-made toothpaste also has been banned in a handful of countries due to its content of diethylene glycol. However, there have been no reports of health problems stemming from the product. China has no guideline banning the chemical in toothpaste, and the government says it is harmless in small amounts.
The list of food scares within China over the past year includes drug-tainted fish, banned Sudan dye used to color egg yolks red, and pork tainted with clenbuterol, a banned feed additive.
China also has stepped up its inspections of imported products and said some U.S. products are not safe.
In the latest case, the official Xinhua News Agency reported Tuesday that a shipment of sugar-free drink mix from the United States had been rejected for having too much red dye.
Last week, China's food safety watchdog said almost 20 percent of products made for consumption within China were found to be substandard in the first half of 2007. Canned and preserved fruit and dried fish were the most problematic, primarily because of excessive bacteria and additives, the agency said.