By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 11, 2007
BEIJING, July 10 -- Moving to address mounting concerns about the safety of its exports, China announced Tuesday that it had executed the former head of its food and drug safety agency for accepting bribes in exchange for approving substandard medicines.
At a news conference, State Food and Drug Administration spokeswoman Yan Jianyang said officials like Zheng Xiaoyu -- who was sentenced to death in May after he was found guilty of accepting cash and gifts worth more than $800,000 -- had brought "shame" to the agency and caused serious problems.
Meanwhile, she acknowledged that the weaknesses in China's food-and-drug monitoring system go far beyond corruption.
Yan, who was joined by high-ranking administrators from four other government groups with primary responsibility for overseeing food and drug safety, presented a wide-ranging, five-year plan for overhauling how food is grown, processed and exported, and how drugs are regulated.
The officials pointed out that China is a developing country that until the turn of the century was unable to provide enough food for all its people, so food safety has not been a big concern until recently.
"Our work in food and drug supervision is only just beginning. The foundation of the work is still weak, and the trend is not promising," Yan said.
The SFDA, for example, said that its goal is to stop production of fake medications within five years by stepping up on-site checks at manufacturing facilities. It also said it would set up a food recall system that would let the agency quickly take contaminated food off grocery store shelves.
The Agriculture Ministry said it was moving to organize its more than 200 million small farmers into larger cooperatives, which would make it easier to track where food is coming from and to enforce standards. The Health Ministry said it would establish a new system that would improve tracking of adverse reactions to food. And the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine said it would try to educate consumers and traders not to buy from blacklisted companies that had been found to have problems and that had posted prominently on the agency's Web site.
The reforms show that "the Chinese government is a responsible government and has placed a great deal of importance on the quality and safety of its exports," said Lin Wei, the deputy director general of the Import and Export Food Safety Bureau.
One of Zheng's deputies, Cao Wenzhuang, who was in charge of pharmaceutical registration, has also been sentenced to death in a related case. Cao also took bribes in exchange for relaxing license requirements.
The consequences of Zheng's misconduct are wide-ranging. He was head of the SFDA from 1998 to 2005, and at least six drugs approved during his tenure turned out to be fakes. One contaminated antibiotic was blamed for killing at least 10 people, including one young girl.
As Chinese officials continue the investigations, they are turning up new problems in food and drug safety every few days. China has withdrawn the licenses of five drugmakers; another 128 have been penalized.
This weekend, China said sales of a popular leukemia drug, made by Shanghai Hualian Pharmaceutical, would be suspended after some patients taking it reported they had difficulty walking and were experiencing leg pain.