Page last updated at 12:03 GMT, Tuesday, 24 November 2009

China executes two over tainted milk powder scandal

Chinese babies waiting to be checked by medical staff (file photo)
Tainted baby milk made thousands of Chinese children ill

China has executed two people for their role in a scandal involving tainted milk powder that resulted in six children dying, officials have said.

More than 300,000 other infants were made ill from milk powder contaminated with melamine, an industrial chemical used to make plastics and fertiliser.

Zhang Yujun and Geng Jinping are the only people to have been executed over the scandal, court officials said.

Nineteen other people were sentenced to prison terms.

Zhang Yujun was convicted of endangering public safety by dangerous means, for selling more than 770 tonnes of the tainted milk powder from July 2007 to August 2008, the official Xinhua news agency said.

Geng Jinping, who managed a milk production centre, was convicted of supplying milk containing melamine to the now-bankrupt Sanlu Group and other dairies.

The two men were sentenced in January in Shijiazhuang, capital of Hebei, where Sanlu was based. Their appeals were rejected by the Hebei Provincial Higher People's Court in March.

Xinhua said the executions were carried out on Tuesday, but did not say where.

Public outrage

Melamine is used in the making of plastics and fertilisers. When added to food products it indicates a higher apparent protein content but can cause kidney stones and kidney failure.

Michael Bristow
Michael Bristow, BBC News, Beijing
It is difficult to overestimate the anger felt by Chinese people across the nation about this scandal.

As soon as it broke, worried parents who had been feeding their children baby powder took them to hospitals for check-ups.

Others said they could not trust anything they put in their mouths.

The government will hope these executions will go some way to convincing people it is serious about improving food safety standards.

But this was not an isolated case - Chinese people are used to food scares.

The government will have to work hard to convince them this will not happen again.

Milk dealers and middlemen, including Zhang and Geng, sold the milk to major dairy companies who failed to test it for its purity and nutritional value.

Sanlu had been China's largest seller of milk powder until news of the racket broke in mid-September last year, Xinhua said.

It emerged that Sanlu had known it was selling toxic milk - and allowed around 900 tonnes of it to leave its dairies before it stopped production.

The company's former chairwoman, Tian Wenhua, was sentenced to life in prison in January this year after pleading guilty to producing and selling fake or substandard milk.

She was the highest-ranking executive charged over the scandal.

The case provoked widespread public outrage in China and came after a series of similar food safety incidents, including another one of contaminated milk powder four years previously which left 13 babies dead.

10 Sept: 14 babies reported ill in Gansu province
15 Sept: Beijing confirms first deaths from the contamination
22 Sept: Toll of ill babies rises to tens of thousands - and eventually will rise to more than 300,000
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
31 Dec: Four senior Sanlu executives go on trial
2 Jan 2009:Firms involved ask for forgiveness in a mass New Year text message
22 Jan: Courts in Hebei province sentence two men to death and 19 to prison terms
March: Higher courts reject appeals
24 Nov: Zhang Yujun and Geng Jinping executed

It led to product recalls across the globe, and further damaged China's reputation for producing safe and reliable products, correspondents say.

In December 2008, the government ordered 22 firms implicated in the tainted milk to pay a total of 1.1bn yuan ($161m; £97.5m) to the hundreds of thousands of families involved.

China's supreme court has not responded to an appeal from more than 200 families that the compensation was inadequate.

Lawyers acting for some of the families have said the government told local authorities to negotiate with the families to reach a settlement.

"We have handled over 400 cases... [and] more than 100 families have not yet reached an agreement with their local government on a satisfying compensation," one of the lawyers, Xu Zhiyong, told the BBC.

Another lawyer said the problem with the tainted milk stemmed from an inadequate regulatory system.

"It's hard to understand why these people are give such harsh punishment because generally speaking... there is a lack of monitoring and regulation," said Li Fangping.

"It's the food supervision and inspection authorities that are responsible for this."

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