January 1, 2009 in Nation/World

Dairy chief admits delaying reports

Tainted milk may bring death penalty
By ANITA CHANG Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

Tian Wenhua, Sanlu Group Co.’s ex-board chairwoman and general manager, stands trial in Shijiazhuang, in China’s Hebei Province, on Wednesday.
(Full-size photo)

BEIJING – A former dairy boss in China’s scandal over tainted milk blamed for the deaths of at least six babies and illnesses of nearly 300,000 others has pleaded guilty to charges that could lead to the death penalty, state media reported.

Tian Wenhua, former board chairwoman and general manager of Sanlu Group Co., admitted in court testimony Wednesday that she knew of problems with her company’s products for months before informing authorities.

Her trial 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 sold by Sanlu and several other companies that was tainted with the industrial chemical melamine. 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.

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 product recalls overseas.

Tian pleaded guilty to charges of producing and selling fake or substandard products, the Xinhua News Agency said. Three other executives faced similar charges and could be executed if convicted, the China Daily newspaper reported.

The trial opened Wednesday in the Shijiazhuang Intermediate People’s Court and finished Wednesday night.

Tian told the court Wednesday 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 report on the situation to the government in Shijiazhuang, the northern Chinese city where Sanlu is based, until Aug. 2.

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