22 Jan 2009

Men sentenced to death in China milk scandal

10:57 pm on 22 January 2009

Two men have been sentenced to death over their involvement in China's tainted milk scandal, while the former boss of New Zealand part-owned Sanlu Group has been jailed for life.

At least six Chinese babies died and nearly 300,000 fell ill with kidney stones last year after drinking milk formula tainted with the industrial chemical melamine used to cheat protein tests.

When the scandal broke in September last year, it emerged a chain of melamine producers and middlemen had been supplying milk dealers with the product.

Verdicts for 21 people involved in the scandal are being handed down on Thursday. They include Sanlu bosses and city officials accused of failing to report the growing numbers of sick children, state news agency Xinhua reported.

The chairwoman of Sanlu Group, the bankrupt dairy company at the centre of the scandal and 43% owned by New Zealand cooperative Fonterra, was sentenced to life in prison for producing and selling fake or sub-standard products.

Tian Wenhua, 66, pleaded guilty on 31 December to the charges.

Three other former Sanlu executives were given jail terms of between five years and 15 years when they appeared at a court in Shijiazhuang, the capital of northern Hebei Province.

Fonterra said on Thursday night it was too early to comment. The dairy giant has completely written off its $NZ201 million investment in Sanlu.

Earlier, the court sentenced Zhang Yujun and Geng Jinping to death.

Zhang Yujun was accused of running an illegal workshop in Shandong province in eastern China, producing 600 tonnes of the fake protein powder - the largest source of melamine in the country.

Geng Jinping was convicted of producing and selling toxic food to dairy companies, Xinhua reports. His associate, Geng Jinzhu, was given eight years in prison.

Zhang Yanzhang, who was accused of selling on protein powder produced by Zhang Yujun, was given a life sentence.

Gao Junjie received a suspended death sentence, Xinhua reported.