updated 12/31/2008 6:41:06 PM ET 2008-12-31T23:41:06

An executive for the dairy company at the heart of China's tainted milk scandal admitted knowing there were problems with Sanlu-brand products for months before she informed authorities and pleaded guilty Wednesday to charges that could lead to the death penalty, state media reported.

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The trial of Tian Wenhua, former board chairwoman and general manager of Sanlu Group Co., was the most high-profile yet in a food safety crisis widely seen as a national disgrace, highlighting corporate and official malfeasance.

At least six babies died and nearly 300,000 were sickened by infant formula tainted with the industrial chemical melamine, while panicked parents across China rushed their children to hospitals for health checks. Middlemen who sell milk to dairy companies were accused of adding water to raw milk, then mixing in nitrogen-rich melamine to fool quality tests for protein content.

Normally used to make plastics and fertilizer, melamine can cause kidney stones and kidney failure when ingested in large amounts. The discovery of melamine in dairy exports such as chocolate and yogurt triggered a slew of product recalls overseas.

Tian, three other top Sanlu executives and the company itself were charged with producing and selling fake or substandard products, the official Xinhua News Agency said. The executives could be executed if convicted, the China Daily newspaper reported.

The trial in the Shijiazhuang Intermediate People's Court finished Wednesday night but no verdict was announced, said a duty officer at the court who refused to give his name because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

As the trial began Wednesday, Tian told the court she learned of consumer complaints about problematic milk in mid-May, and led a company team set up to handle the case, Xinhua said. She told the court that she didn't submit a written report on the situation to the government in Shijiazhuang, the northern Chinese city where Sanlu is based, until Aug. 2.

The emerging details showed how news of the contamination slowly emerged over several months, finally becoming public in September.

MelamineSanlu received complaints about its baby formula as early as December 2007, with some parents saying they noticed red sediment in their children's urine, Xinhua said, citing prosecutors.

The complaints reached top executives, such as Tian, in May.

After product testing, the company learned Aug. 1 that its baby formula was contaminated with melamine, Xinhua said, though previous state media reports have said it was as early as June.

Tian's report to local authorities was submitted the next day.

But Sanlu did not issue a public recall until Sept. 11, earning 47.5 million yuan ($6.9 million) in sales of toxic formula between Aug. 2 and the recall, Xinhua said.

News footage from the courtroom showed Tian and her colleagues hanging their heads as they appeared before a three-judge panel.

Defendant Wang Yuliang, a former deputy general manager at Sanlu, was in a wheelchair because he lost use of his legs in a suicide attempt, Xinhua said, without providing specifics.

Seventeen other people linked to the scandal have gone on trial over the past few days, with several facing a possible death sentence. The defendants included people accused of producing melamine and marketing it to milk producers, as well as milk collectors who mixed the chemical into raw milk sold to major dairies. No verdicts have been announced.

Death sentences in the tainted milk case could be forthcoming as the Chinese government seeks to impress upon the country's many small and poorly regulated food producers that it is cracking down on shoddy products. Food safety scares in recent years have included eggs colored with industrial dye and seafood laced with unapproved drugs.

In 2007, China executed the director of its food and drug agency for approving fake medicine in exchange for cash. One antibiotic was blamed for causing the deaths of at least 10 people.

In a move underscoring public concerns, China's top product quality watchdog said it was testing tableware made of melamine after reports that the products could be toxic when heated, Xinhua said Wednesday. The utensils were sold in domestic supermarkets and wholesale markets, the report said, citing the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine.

Families of children sickened by bad milk have criticized a 1.1 billion yuan ($160 million) compensation plan funded by the 22 Chinese dairy companies found to have sold tainted products, saying the proposed payments were inadequate.

Parents of children who died would receive 200,000 yuan ($29,000), while children who suffered kidney stones would get 2,000 yuan ($290), according to details reported by state media. Sicker children would be paid 30,000 yuan ($4,380).

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