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Page last updated at 19:14 GMT, Wednesday, 31 December 2008

China milk scandal 'guilty' plea

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Four dairy firm executives on trial in China

An executive for the dairy firm at the centre of China's tainted milk scandal has pleaded guilty to charges that may incur the death penalty, reports say.

Tian Wenhua, former head of Sanlu, and three other executives are accused of producing and selling defective goods.

State media said the trial into the poisonings, which left at least six children dead and nearly 300,000 ill, ended with no immediate verdict.

Earlier, lawyers for Ms Tian told AFP news agency she had not entered a plea.

Investigations have shown that dairy producers in China watered down their milk in order to make their supplies go further so that they could make more money.

They then disguised what they had done by adding the industrial chemical melamine in order to raise the apparent protein levels in the milk - making children ill.

Public apology

The trial was the most high-profile yet in China's food safety crisis.

A baby drinks bottled milk in Chengdu, China, Dec 08
China launched a new food safety campaign in December
Ms Tian told the court that she first learned of tainted milk complaints in May and then set up a working team under her leadership to handle the problem.

She said she reported the problem to the city government on 2 August; Sanlu stopped production on 12 September, Xinhua reported.

Alongside Ms Tian at the trial, held in Shijiazhuang Intermediate People's Court in northern China, were the deputy general managers Wang Yuliang, Hang Zhiqi and Wu Jengsheng.

The company itself is also a defendant.

Xinhua news agency reported court sources as saying that Mr Wang is in a wheelchair after losing the use of his legs in a suicide attempt.

At the close of the trial, trade union chairman Ran Weiguang, representing Sanlu, apologised to the ill children and their families, said Xinhua.

It is not known when the verdicts will be announced.

Delays

In the past week, 17 people have gone on trial for links to the scandal.

The defendants include 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.

MELAMINE SCANDAL
10 Sept: 14 babies reported ill in Gansu province
13 Sept: First people arrested over the scandal
15 Sept: Beijing confirms first deaths from the contamination
22 Sept: Toll of ill babies rises to tens of thousands - and will rise to almost 300,000; head of China's quality watchdog resigns
23 Sept: Other countries start to test Chinese dairy products or remove them from shops
31 Oct: Chinese media suggest melamine is routinely added to animal feed
23 Dec: The main dairy firm involved, Sanlu, files for bankruptcy
26 Dec: The first trials begin
31 Dec: Four senior Sanlu executives go on trial

Sanlu allegedly delayed revealing the practice even after baby illnesses rose, forcing its foreign partner, the New Zealand dairy firm Fonterra, to alert the Beijing government.

It is also alleged to have resisted demands to recall its product, raising concerns about poor regulation and enforcement of food safety rules in China.

Sanlu has since filed for bankruptcy, and analysts have said China's dairy industry faces many challenges if it is to recover.

Melamine has been found in a wide range of Chinese food products, some of them exported around the world.

The high publicity surrounding the trials is being taken as an indication of the central government's desire to be seen to be tackling the scandal.

The government has also announced a $160m (£110m) compensation plan, but parents and their lawyers say it is too small.

According to the BBC correspondent in Beijing, James Reynolds, there is a real sense of anger in China against the dairy producers, and also against government officials and regulators who did not do their job properly.

Chinese quality inspectors are now investigating tableware for melamine levels, following reports it becomes dangerous when hot, Xinhua reported.

China's General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine "has always put great stress on food and tableware product safety", Xinhua quoted it as saying.

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