Milk Contamination Scandal Goes to Trial
By Gerri L. Elder
In Shanghai, China, the state-run news media has reported that the former chairperson of one of the largest dairy producers in China has pleaded guilty to selling tainted powdered baby formula.
The New York Times reported that with her guilty plea, Tian Wenhua acknowledged for the first time that the company knew of the problem months before local officials were alerted.
If convicted, Ms. Tian could face life in prison or execution. She is one of the highest-ranking
corporate executives to go on trial in China.
The tainted baby formula has become one of China's most troubling food-safety crises. The scandal became public in September after melamine discovered in the formula caused approximately 300,000 children to become ill and six to die.
Since September, investigators discovered that the problem of watered-down milk being deliberately contaminated with melamine was widespread. This discovery led to global
recalls of suspected defective products from China.
Melamine, a chemical used in plastics and fertilizers, was used to falsely raise the protein counts in the watered-down milk. The chemical can cause kidney stones or other medical problems and can lead to death when ingested.
The melamine scandal follows several other problems in China's food and drug industries and has devastated the dairy industry there.
Sanlu and other Chinese companies are accused of failing to monitor the quality of the powdered baby formula they produced. The government has accused some of the companies of concealing and covering up the fact that the baby formula contained high levels of melamine.
Ms. Tian pleaded guilty on the first day of a trial that includes three other former Sanlu executives.
During the trial, the court said that consumer complaints about the company's milk were made as early as December 2007. Ms. Tian reportedly admitted that she knew by May 2008 that the company was selling contaminated baby formula; however, she did not report the problem to government officials until August.
Prior to Ms. Tian's testimony, Sanlu officials had insisted that they were not aware of the contamination until August.
Sanlu stopped production in September, but the damage was already done. Prosecutors say that
between May and September the company produced more than 900 tons of baby formula that was contaminated with melamine.
In August, executives at the Fonterra Group of New Zealand, a company that owns a large share of Sanlu, said that they became aware of the melamine contamination and pushed the milk company to issue a recall. Sanlu filed bankruptcy in December.
The parents of the children who became ill and died after drinking the melamine-contaminated milk have been offered compensation for their children's pain and suffering.
The milk companies have offered 1.1 billion Yuan ($160 million) to families for the melamine contamination, which amounts to the children who suffered from kidney stones receiving $290, sicker children receiving up to $4,380 and the families of the deceased children receiving $29,000 each.
The families of the sick and deceased children have rejected the offer and plan to file a civil lawsuit against the milk companies for the illnesses and deaths caused by
the contaminated milk. Total Injury will provide news updates on this food contamination story as it develops.
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