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Sat, Jan 03, 2009 - Page 10 News List

Chinese dairy firms say sorry by text message

AGENCIES , BEIJING AND WELLINGTON

Tian Wenhua, Sanlu Group Co’s former chairwoman and general manager, stands on trial in a court in Shijiazhuang, China, on Wednesday. The former dairy boss testified on Wednesday that she began investigating product quality issues in May.

PHOTO: AP

“Please forgive us,” a group of Chinese dairy firms said in a New Year text message sent to millions of mobile phone subscribers.

The 22 dairy firms, led by the now-bankrupt Sanlu (三鹿), apologized and asked forgiveness for the contamination of their products by melamine, which killed at least six babies and made 290,000 ill.

Melamine, an industrial compound used in plastic and fertilizer, was added to milk to cheat protein tests.

The chairwoman of Sanlu, Tian Wenhua (田文華), and three other company executives are on trial at a court in northern China for the contamination. Tian is expected to be sentenced to life imprisonment, although the verdict may not be reached for several weeks, the Beijing News said yesterday.

“We are deeply sorry for the harm caused to the children and society,” the text message read. “We sincerely apologize for that and we beg your forgiveness.”

Another 17 people involved in producing, selling, buying and adding melamine in raw milk have gone on trial in the last week.

Sanlu said it discovered the problem and reported it to local authorities in Hebei Province on Aug. 2, just days before the Olympic Games began in Beijing.

But nothing became public until early September, when the New Zealand government said it brought complaints by Sanlu’s partner, Fonterra, to the attention of the Chinese government.

Meanwhile, clusters of babies ill with kidney stones had cropped up in Chinese hospitals.

“If we were in Europe or another country, it wouldn’t be a question of apologies, it would be a question of legal responsibility,” Beijinger Shi Zhiqing said.

Meanwhile, Fonterra has rejected claims the former head of its Chinese joint venture pleaded guilty to charges related to the tainted milk scandal, reports said yesterday.

Tian had “absolutely and unequivocally” pleaded not guilty in a Chinese court to the charges, a Fonterra spokesman told the New Zealand Herald.

The verdicts have yet to be delivered, but Fonterra chief executive Andrew Ferrier said he would be saddened if Tian were convicted, let alone executed.

“She seemed to live and breathe Sanlu,” Ferrier said. “She only wanted the best for Sanlu and it would be very sad if she’s found guilty of any crimes.”

Fonterra, which wrote off its 43 percent shareholding in Sanlu for a loss of NZ$201 million (US$114 million), was not represented at the one-day court hearing.

However, the Fonterra spokesman told the Herald he received assurances about Tian’s not pleading guilty while making inquiries in Asia at Ferrier’s request.

Chinese authorities have made no attempt to press charges against Fonterra. Even so, Ferrier said Fonterra wanted the Sanlu affair resolved before it would re-invest in China.

“It is our intention to re-invest in China at an appropriate time, providing we have enough comfort and control in the supply chain,” Ferrier said.

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