- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 11, 2007

BEIJING — China executed a former director of its food and drug agency yesterday for approving fake medicine in exchange for cash, illustrating how serious Beijing is about tackling product safety, while officials announced steps to safeguard food at next summer’s Olympic Games.

The measures include ensuring athletes’ food is free of substances that could trigger a positive result in tests for banned performance-enhancing drugs. Many of China’s recent food woes have been tied to the purity of ingredients, flavoring, artificial colors and other additives.

During Zheng Xiaoyu’s tenure as head of the State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA) from 1997 to 2006, the agency approved six untested drugs that turned out to be fake, and some drug makers used falsified documents to apply for approvals, according to state press reports. One antibiotic caused the deaths of at least 10 persons.

“The few corrupt officials of the SFDA are the shame of the whole system, and their scandals have revealed some very serious problems,” agency spokeswoman Yan Jiangying said at a press conference highlighting efforts to improve China’s record on food and drug safety.

Next year’s Beijing Olympics, a great source of pride for China, also has been targeted in the crackdown on unsafe food. Sun Wenxu, an official with the State Administration for Industry and Commerce, told reporters that athletes, coaches, officials and others can be assured of safe meals.

All the procedures involving Olympic food, including production, processing, packaging, storing and transporting will be closely monitored, officials said.

Food and drug agency spokeswoman Ms. Yan acknowledged the agency’s supervision remains unsatisfactory and that it has been slow to curb the problem.

China is a developing country, and our supervision of food and drugs started quite late and our foundation for this work is weak, so we are not optimistic about the current food- and drug-safety situation,” she said.

Fears abroad over Chinese-made drugs were sparked last year by the deaths of dozens of people in Panama, who took medicine contaminated with diethylene glycol — a thickening agent used in antifreeze — imported from China. It was passed off as harmless glycerin.

Chinese-made toothpaste containing diethylene glycol has been banned in North and South America and Asia, though there have been no reports of health problems stemming from the product. And two brands of toothpaste sold in Spain were pulled from the shelves after the substance was found, the European Union said yesterday.

China has no guideline banning the chemical in toothpaste, and the government says it is harmless in small amounts.

In the United States and Canada, pet food containing Chinese wheat gluten tainted with the chemical melamine has been 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.

The list of food scares in China over the past year includes drug-tainted fish, industrial dye used to color egg yolks red and pork tainted with a banned feed additive.

Zheng’s death sentence was unusually severe even for China, which is thought to carry out more court-ordered executions than all other nations combined, and indicates the communist leadership’s determination to confront the country’s dire product-safety record.

Zheng, 63, was convicted of taking cash and gifts worth $832,000 when he was in charge of the food and drug agency.

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