BEIJING — China executed a former director of its food and drug agency Tuesday for approving fake medicine in exchange for cash, illustrating how serious Beijing is about tackling product safety, while officials announced steps to safeguard food at next summer’s Olympic Games.
The measures include ensuring athletes’ food is free of substances that could trigger a positive result in tests for banned performance-enhancing drugs. Many of China’s recent food woes have been tied to the purity of ingredients, flavoring, artificial colors and other additives.
During Zheng Xiaoyu’s tenure as head of the State Food and Drug Administration from 1997 to 2006, the agency approved six untested drugs that turned out to be fake, and some drug-makers used falsified documents to apply for approvals, according to state media reports. One antibiotic caused the deaths of at least 10 people.
“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 Tuesday highlighting efforts to improve China’s track record on food and drug safety.
Safety of Olympic fare
Next year’s Beijing Olympics, a great source of pride for China, also has been targeted in the crackdown on unsafe food. Sun Wenxu, an official with the State Administration for Industry and Commerce, told reporters that athletes, coaches, officials and others can be assured of safe meals.
“All the procedures involving Olympic food, including production, processing, packaging, storing and transporting will be closely monitored,” Sun said.
Food and drug agency spokeswoman Yan acknowledged the agency’s supervision 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,” she said.
Fears abroad over Chinese-made drugs were sparked last year by the deaths of dozens of people in Panama who took medicine contaminated with diethylene glycol — a thickening agent used in antifreeze — imported from China. It was passed off as harmless glycerin.
Chinese-made toothpaste containing diethylene glycol has been banned in North and South America and Asia, though there have been no reports of health problems stemming from the product. And two brands of toothpaste sold in Spain were pulled from the shelves after the substance was found, the European Union said Tuesday.
China has no guideline banning the chemical in toothpaste, and the government says it is harmless in small amounts.
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In the United States and Canada, pet food containing Chinese wheat gluten tainted with the chemical melamine has been 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.
The list of food scares within China over the past year includes drug-tainted fish, industrial dye used to color egg yolks red and pork tainted with a banned feed additive.
Tighter safety procedures
Zheng’s death sentence was unusually severe even for China, which is believed to carry out more court-ordered executions than all other nations combined, and indicates the communist leadership’s determination to confront the country’s dire product safety record.
Zheng, 63, was convicted of taking cash and gifts worth $832,000 when he was in charge of the food and drug agency.
He was sentenced to death on May 29 and his appeal was rejected on June 12 by the Higher People’s Court of Beijing. China’s Supreme Court approved the sentence, saying Zheng “committed vile crimes and caused extreme harm to society.”
“Although he confessed to some of the crimes of bribe-taking and returned some of the illegal income, it was not enough for leniency,” the court said.
Zheng’s execution Tuesday morning was confirmed by state television and the official Xinhua News Agency.
“We should seriously reflect and learn lessons from these cases. We should step up our efforts to ensure food and drug safety, which is what we are doing now and what we will do in the future,” Yan said.
Cao Wenzhuang, a former director of the food and drug agency’s drug registration department, was sentenced to death last week for accepting bribes and dereliction of duty. He was given a two-year reprieve, which usually means he can get life in prison if deemed to have reformed.
Yan said the food and drug agency was working to tighten its safety procedures and create a more transparent operating environment. The administration has announced a series of measures to tighten safety controls and closed factories where illegal chemicals or other problems were found.
13 companies banned from exporting
The General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine posted on its Web site Monday the names of 13 companies that have been banned from exporting after their products were found to be substandard.
The products included rice cakes, cooked mushrooms, preserved pears and several kinds of seafood bound for Europe, Japan and North America. Problems included evasion of inspection and quarantine, as well as excessive bacteria and sulfur dioxide in the food or the presence of banned drugs.
Meanwhile, authorities promised to investigate water purity after a newspaper reported that more than half of the water coolers in Beijing use counterfeit branded water.
The Beijing Times reported that water jugs are filled with either tap water or purified water from small suppliers and sealed with bogus quality standard marks.
The report said the practice is widespread because water from major suppliers can cost twice as much as water from other sources.
Wu Jianping, an official with the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, 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 said.
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