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China’s top drug regulator gets death sentence

File photo of Zheng, former director of China's State Food and Drug Administration, during a meeting in Beijing
Zheng Xiaoyu, former director of China's State Food and Drug Administration, was sentenced to death for corruption on Tuesday.China Daily / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

China’s former top drug regulator was sentenced to death Tuesday for taking bribes to approve untested medicines, as the country’s main quality control agency announced its first recall system targeting unsafe food products.

The developments are among the most dramatic steps Beijing has publicly taken to address domestic and international alarm over shoddy and unsafe Chinese goods — from pet-food ingredients and toothpaste mixed with industrial chemicals to tainted antibiotics.

The Beijing No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court convicted Zheng Xiaoyu for taking bribes in cash and gifts worth more than $832,000 when he was director of the State Food and Drug Administration, the official Xinhua News Agency said. The court then issued the death penalty, the report said.

A woman surnamed Liu who answered the telephone at the court’s duty office confirmed the report but declined to give additional details.

Zheng, who ran the drug administration from its creation in 1998 until he was fired in 2005, saw his power increase substantially in 2002 when the government required that all drugs be approved by the agency. The change resulted in a massive backlog, giving companies a strong incentive to find ways to expedite approvals.

In one instance, an antibiotic approved by Zheng’s agency killed at least 10 patients last year before it was taken off the market.

Also Tuesday, an official from the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine said that the recall system will be part of a new regulation crafted by the agency and will be implemented by the end of the year.

“All domestic and foreign food producers and distributors will be obliged to follow the system,” Wu Jianping, director general of the administration’s food production and supervision department, was quoted as saying in the state-run China Daily newspaper.

The recall system would be put in place gradually and will focus on “potentially dangerous and unapproved food products” the report said.

The report did not provide further details and the inspection agency refused comment.

Current regulations on product inspection, issued in 2002, mention the need for a food recall system, the China Daily said, but the issue has not been systematically addressed.

Tainted pet food ingredients
Concern over Chinese exports has been increasing as more instances of poor hygiene and the use of banned substances are uncovered.

Pet-food ingredients, spiked with the chemical melamine and related compounds, have been blamed in the deaths of dogs and cats in North America. The U.S. government has stopped all Chinese toothpaste imports after reports that some products sold in Australia, the Dominican Republic and Panama were tainted with diethylene glycol, a chemical commonly used in antifreeze and brake fluid.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration also warned consumers not to buy or eat imported fish from China labeled as monkfish because it might actually be pufferfish, which contains a potentially deadly toxin called tetrodotoxin.

The warning came days after three southern U.S. states banned imports of catfish from China because they contained traces of antibiotics the FDA says have never been approved for use in aquaculture.

The China Daily also said that the State Food and Drug Administration, Zheng’s agency, plans to blacklist food producers who break rules.

The administration launched a nationwide campaign Monday on drug-safety inspection, sending a total of 90 officials to 15 provinces over the next two weeks, the newspaper said.

Food-safety record
The Chinese leadership also has been battling a dismal food-safety record within the country. China’s Health Ministry reported almost 34,000 food-related illnesses in 2005, with spoiled food accounting for the largest number.

According to The Outlook Weekly, a magazine published by the Chinese government’s news agency, a survey by the quality inspection administration found that a third of China’s 450,000 food production companies had no licenses.

Also, 60 percent of the total did not conduct safety tests or have the capability to do so, the survey found.