- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 1, 2009

BEIJING | 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 pleaded guilty Wednesday to charges that could lead to the death penalty, state media reported.

The trial of Tian Wenhua, former board chairwoman and general manager of Sanlu Group Co., 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 fool quality tests for protein content.

Normally used to make plastics and fertilizer, melamine 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.

Ms. Tian, three other top Sanlu executives and the company itself were charged with producing and selling fake or substandard products, the official Xinhua 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, said a duty officer at the court who refused to give his name because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

As the trial began Wednesday, Ms. Tian told the court she learned of consumer complaints about problematic milk in mid-May, and led a company team set up to handle the case, Xinhua said. She told the court she didn’t submit a written report on the situation to the government in Shijiazhuang, the northern Chinese city where Sanlu is based, until Aug. 2.

News footage from the courtroom showed Ms. 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 use of his legs in a suicide attempt, Xinhua said, without providing specifics.

Seventeen other people linked to the scandal have gone on trial over the past few days, with several facing a possible death sentence. 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.

In 2007, China executed the director of its food and drug agency for approving fake medicine in exchange for cash. One antibiotic was blamed for causing the deaths of at least 10 people.

Families of children sickened by bad milk have criticized a $160 million compensation plan funded by the 22 Chinese dairy companies found to have sold tainted products, saying the proposed payments were inadequate.

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