China executed the former head of its food and drug watchdog today for approving untested medicine in exchange for cash, the strongest signal yet from Beijing that it is serious about tackling its product safety crisis.
During Zheng Xiaoyu's tenure as head of the State Food and Drug Administration from 1997 to 2006, the agency approved six medicines that turned out to be fake, and the drug-makers used falsified documents to apply for approvals, according to previous state media reports. One antibiotic caused the deaths of at least 10 people.
His execution was confirmed by state television and the official Xinhua News Agency.
"The few corrupt officials of the SFDA are the shame of the whole system and their scandals have revealed some very serious problems," agency spokeswoman Yan Jiangying said at a news conference held to highlight efforts to improve China's track record on food and drug safety.
The government also assured athletes, coaches, officials, and others could count on safe meals at the 2008 Beijing Summer Games, and that food would be free of substances that could trigger a positive result in tests for banned performance enhancing drugs.
Food safety authorities, meanwhile, promised to investigate a newspaper report that more than half of the water coolers in Beijing used counterfeit branded water.
Yan was asked to comment on Zheng's sentence and that of his subordinate, Cao Wenzhuang, a former director of SFDA's drug registration department who was last week sentenced to death for accepting bribes and dereliction of duty. Cao was given a two-year reprieve, a ruling which is usually commuted to life in prison if the convict is deemed to have reformed.
"We should seriously reflect and learn lessons from these cases," Yan said.
Zheng, 63, was convicted of taking cash and gifts worth $832,000 when he was in charge of the State Food and Drug Administration.
His death sentence was unusually heavy even for China, believed to carry out more court-ordered executions than all other nations combined, and indicates the leadership's determination to confront the country's dire product safety record.
Last year, dozens of people died in Panama after taking medicine contaminated with diethylene glycol imported from China. It was passed off as harmless glycerin.
Yan said she did not have any information about whether the Chinese manufacturer, Taixing Glycerin Factory, and the Chinese distributor, CNSC Fortune Way, had been punished.
China admitted last month that it was the source of the deadly chemical that ended up in cough syrup and other treatments but insists the chemical was originally labeled as for industrial use only. Beijing blames the Panama traders who eventually bought the shipment for fraudulently relabeling it as medical-grade glycerin.
Scandals over contaminated Chinese food exports have underscored chronic problems with adulterated ingredients and fake products in the domestic supply, raising questions of how well China can guarantee the purity of food for the Olympics.
"All the procedures involving Olympic food, including production, processing, packaging, storing and transporting will be closely monitored," Sun Wenxu, an official with the State Administration for Industry and Commerce, told reporters today.
A food safety official also promised an investigation into the Beijing Times newspaper report about water coolers, but noted that a May inspection of Beijing's drinking water products found more than 96 percent were safe.
"Problems found with some individual cases cannot be interpreted to mean that the entire water industry has problems," Wu Jianping of the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine told a news conference.
In North America earlier this year, pet food containing Chinese wheat gluten tainted with the chemical melamine was blamed for the deaths of dogs and cats.
Since then, U.S. authorities have turned away or recalled toxic fish, juice containing unsafe color additives and popular toy trains decorated with lead paint.
Yan said the food and drug administration was working to strengthen its safety procedures. The administration has already announced a series of measures to tighten safety controls and closed factories where illegal chemicals or other problems were found.
But Yan acknowledged that her agency's supervision of food and drug safety remains unsatisfactory and that it has been slow to tackle the problem.
"China is a developing country and our supervision of food and drugs started quite late and our foundation for this work is weak, so we are not optimistic about the current food and drug safety situation," Yan said.
Chinese officials have already said the country faces social unrest and a further tarnished image abroad unless it improves the quality and safety of its food and medicine.
Last week, China's food safety watchdog said almost 20 percent of products made for domestic consumption were found to be substandard in the first half of 2007.
China has also stepped up its inspections of imported products and said some U.S. products are not safe.
In the latest case, the official Xinhua News Agency reported today that a shipment of sugar-free drink mix from the United States had been rejected for having too much red dye.
China executes former food and drug safety chief