- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 25, 2009

BEIJING | China executed a dairy farmer and a milk salesman Tuesday for their roles in the sale of contaminated baby formula — severe punishments that Beijing hopes will assuage public anger and put to rest one of the country’s worst food safety crises.

The men were the only people put to death in a scheme to boost profits by lacing milk powder with the industrial chemical melamine; another 19 were convicted and received lesser sentences. At least six children died after drinking the adulterated formula, and more than 300,000 were sickened.

Beijing is eager to prove it has responded swiftly and comprehensively to eliminate problems in its food production chain that have spawned protests at home and threatened its export-reliant economy. The milk powder contamination struck a nerve with the public because so many children were affected, but it was only one in a series of product recalls and other embarrassing disclosures of lax public health safeguards.

Melamine, which is used in the manufacture of plastics and fertilizers, has also been found added to pet food, eggs and fish feed.

The chemical, which like protein is high in nitrogen, fooled inspectors. It can cause kidney stones and kidney failure.

China says it has since tightened regulations and increased inspections on producers and exporters in cooperation with U.S. officials.

But Beijing continues to struggle to regulate countless small and illegally run operations, often blamed for introducing chemicals and additives into the food chain. The country has 450,000 registered food production and processing enterprises, but many - about 350,000 - employ just 10 people or fewer. The U.N. said in a report last year that the small enterprises present many of China’s greatest food safety challenges.

Zhang Yujun, a farmer, was executed for endangering public safety, and Geng Jinping for producing and selling toxic food, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.

Much of the phony protein powder that Zhang and Geng produced and sold ended up at the now-defunct Sanlu Group Co., at the time one of China’s biggest dairies.

Sanlu’s general manager, Tian Wenhua, was given a life sentence. Other executives were given between five years and 15 years in prison.

Outrage spread quickly after news of the doctored milk broke in September 2008, both because of the extent of the contamination and allegations that the government prevented the news from breaking until after the Olympic Games in Beijing ended.

U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission Chairman Inez Tenenbaum said last month that Beijing has made progress in increasing safety in products.

The numbers of consumer recalls of toys imported from China had fallen from more than 80 in fiscal 2008 to about 40 in fiscal 2009, Ms. Tenenbaum said.

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