By Anita Chang
Thursday, January 1, 2009
BEIJING, Dec. 31 -- An executive for the dairy company at the heart of China's tainted-milk scandal admitted knowing there were problems with Sanlu-brand products for months before she informed authorities, and she pleaded guilty Wednesday to charges that could lead to the death penalty, state news media reported.
The trial of Tian Wenhua, former board chairwoman and general manager of Sanlu Group, was the most high-profile yet in a food-safety crisis widely seen as a national disgrace highlighting corporate and official malfeasance.
At least six babies died and nearly 300,000 were sickened by infant formula tainted with the industrial chemical melamine, while panicked parents across China rushed their children to hospitals for health checks. Middlemen who sell milk to dairy companies were accused of adding water to raw milk, then mixing in nitrogen-rich melamine to pass tests for protein content.
Melamine, normally used to make plastics and fertilizer, can cause kidney stones and kidney failure when ingested in large amounts. The discovery of melamine in dairy exports such as chocolate and yogurt triggered a slew of product recalls overseas.
Tian, three other top Sanlu executives and the company itself were charged with producing and selling fake or substandard products, the official New China News Agency said. The executives could be executed if convicted, the China Daily newspaper reported.
The trial in the Shijiazhuang Intermediate People's Court finished Wednesday night, but no verdict was announced, according to a duty officer at the court who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the news media.
As the trial began Wednesday, Tian told the court that she learned of consumer complaints about problematic milk in mid-May and led a company team set up to handle the case, the New China News Agency said. She told the court that she didn't submit a written report on the situation to officials in Shijiazhuang, the city in northern China where Sanlu is based, until Aug. 2.
The emerging details showed how news of the contamination slowly emerged over several months, finally becoming public in September.
Sanlu received complaints about its baby formula as early as December 2007, with some parents saying they noticed red sediment in their children's urine, the news agency said, citing prosecutors. The complaints reached top executives in May.
After product testing, the company learned Aug. 1 that its baby formula was contaminated with melamine, the news agency said, though previous state news reports have said the company knew of the contamination as early as June.
Tian's report to local authorities was submitted the next day. But Sanlu did not issue a public recall until Sept. 11, earning $6.9 million in sales of toxic formula between Aug. 2 and the recall, the news agency said.
Television news footage from the courtroom showed Tian and her colleagues hanging their heads as they appeared before a three-judge panel. Defendant Wang Yuliang, a former deputy general manager at Sanlu, was in a wheelchair because he lost the use of his legs in a suicide attempt, according to the news agency.
Seventeen other people linked to the scandal have gone on trial over the past few days, with several facing death sentences. The defendants included people accused of producing melamine and marketing it to milk producers, as well as milk collectors who mixed the chemical into raw milk sold to major dairies. No verdicts have been announced.
Death sentences in the tainted-milk case could be forthcoming as the Chinese government seeks to impress upon the country's many small and poorly regulated food producers that it is cracking down on shoddy products.