The former boss of the dairy firm at the heart of China’s tainted milk scandal stood trial yesterday over a trail of death and sickness that pushed Chinese products off shelves worldwide.
Tian Wenhua (田文華), 66-year-old former general manager of the now bankrupt Sanlu Group, pleaded guilty to charges of “producing and selling fake or substandard products,” state-run Xinhua news agency said.
Tian appeared with three other company executives at a court in Shijiazhuang, capital of northern Hebei Province. It was unclear whether they could face the death penalty.
“[Tian] may face a maximum penalty of death for producing and selling contaminated baby milk food, along with three of her senior managers at the Shijiazhuang Intermediate People’s Court,” the official China Daily said yesterday.
But the Xinhua report said the maximum sentence for the charges was life imprisonment.
Executives at Sanlu, partly owned by New Zealand’s Fonterra group, failed to report cases of Chinese children developing kidney stones and other complications from drinking milk adulterated with melamine for months before the scandal broke in September.
Melamine, an industrial compound used in making plastic chairs, countertops, plates, flame retardants and even concrete, has been added to food to cheat nutrition tests because of its high nitrogen content.
Another 17 people involved in producing, selling, buying and adding melamine in raw milk have gone on trial in the last week.
At least six children have died and more than 290,000 made ill from the contaminated milk, battering already dented faith in China-made products and prompting massive recalls around the world.
Tian told the court yesterday she learned about the tainted milk complaints from consumers in mid-May, Xinhua quoted her as saying.
The company set up a working team led by Tian to handle the case, but did not submit a written report about the milk powder to the Shijiazhuang city government until Aug. 2, Tian said.
The Shijiazhuang government did not report the case to higher government authorities until a month later, prompting speculation authorities sought to avoid a scandal upsetting Beijing’s Olympic Games in August.
China, seeking to restore battered credibility in its food, drugs and products, is likely to pass stiff sentences if the four are convicted.