By David Barboza
Published: May 29, 2007
SHANGHAI: The former head of China's top food and drug safety agency was sentenced to death Tuesday after pleading guilty to corruption and accepting bribes, the state-controlled news media reported.
Zheng Xiaoyu, who served as commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration from its founding in 1998 until mid-2005, was detained in February as part of a government investigation into corruption at the agency.
The unusually harsh sentence for the 62-year-old former commissioner came at a time of heightened concern about the quality and safety of China's food and drug system, following a series of scandals here involving tainted food and counterfeit drugs.
China is under mounting pressure to overhaul its food export controls after two local companies were accused this year of shipping contaminated pet food ingredients to the United States, leading to one of the largest pet food recalls in U.S. history.
The government is also investigating how diethylene glycol, a toxic chemical used to make antifreeze, ended up in cough syrup and toothpaste in Latin America.
In Panama, more than 100 people died last year after consuming cough medicine laced with diethylene glycol, which had been shipped from China mislabeled as glycerin.
Last week, Chinese-made toothpaste tainted with diethylene glycol was pulled off store shelves in Panama, the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua.
The pet food and toothpaste recalls are posing a serious threat to China's growing food and drug exports and have led to international calls for new testing and screening methods for other Chinese-made goods.
But the trial of the former director of the nation's food and drug regulator suggested that the problems in China are even more serious.
Every year, thousands of people here are sickened or killed because of rampant counterfeiting and phony or tainted food and drugs.
Last year 11 people died in China after being treated with an injection tainted by a fake chemical.
Also, six people died and 80 fell ill after taking an antibiotic that was produced with what regulators later said was a "substandard disinfectant."
Small Chinese drug makers have long been accused of manufacturing phony or substandard drugs and marketing them to the nation's hospitals and pharmacies.
Mass food poisonings involving tainted food products are common.
This week, the state-controlled media in Shanghai said the city's food and drug regulator had recalled drugs made by three companies that were not registered as drug makers.
Also this week, the media reported that 56 people in the southern province of Guangdong had fallen ill after eating tainted meat.
The government has stepped up its efforts in recent weeks, announcing a series of measures aimed at strengthening food and drug safety and cracking down on counterfeiting.
On Tuesday, government officials said they were preparing to release the first regulations on nationwide food recalls.
The government also said it would institute new rules to stop food products from being exported illegally, bypassing food inspections.
In announcing the death sentence Tuesday, the No. 1 Intermediate People's Court in Beijing said Zheng had been convicted of taking bribes and of dereliction of duty, the official Xinhua press agency reported.
Xinhua reported that the court deemed the death sentence appropriate given the "huge amount of bribes involved and the great damage inflicted on the country and the public by Zheng's dereliction of duty."
The court accused Zheng of accepting about $850,000 in bribes in exchange for approving drug-production licenses.
Worried that some of those drugs may be substandard, China is reviewing more than 170,000 production licenses issued by the food and drug agency over the past decade.
Some drug experts in China said Zheng's death sentence was appropriate because the entire structure of the drug industry was "screwed up" during his tenure.
"The death penalty wouldn't be excessive punishment for Zheng," said Wang Yigao, a professor at the Hunan Academy of Sciences. "Zheng was simply using the power given by the state to pursue his personal ambition."
A bit harsh...yes...possibly...but my only concern is, I hope he wasn't the scapegoat.