BEIJING — China executed a dairy farmer and a milk salesman Tuesday for their roles in the sale of contaminated baby formula – severe punishments that Beijing hopes will assuage public anger, reassure importers and put to rest one of the country's worst food safety crises.
The men were the only people put to death in a scheme to boost profits by lacing milk powder with the industrial chemical melamine; 19 other people were convicted and received lesser sentences. At least six children died after drinking the adulterated formula, and more than 300,000 were sickened.
Beijing is eager to show it has responded swiftly and comprehensively to eliminate problems in its food production chain that have spawned protests at home and threatened its export-reliant economy. The milk powder contamination struck a nerve with the public because so many children were affected, but was only one in a series of product recalls and embarrassing disclosures of lax public health safeguards.
Melamine, which is used to make plastics and fertilizers, has also been found added to pet food, eggs and fish feed, although not in levels considered dangerous to humans. The chemical, which like protein is high in nitrogen, fooled inspectors. It can cause kidney stones and kidney failure.
China has tightened regulations and increased inspections on producers and exporters in cooperation with U.S. officials, who have noted a drop in the number of product recalls on Chinese exports.
But Beijing continues to struggle to regulate small and illegally run operations, often blamed for introducing chemicals and additives into the food chain. The country has 450,000 registered food production and processing enterprises, but many – about 350,000 – employ just 10 people or fewer. The U.N. said in a report last year that the small enterprises present many of China's greatest food safety challenges.
Zhang Yujun, the farmer, was executed for endangering public safety, and Geng Jinping for producing and selling toxic food, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.
Much of the phony protein powder that Zhang and Geng produced and sold ended up at the defunct Sanlu Group Co., at the time one of China's biggest dairies.
Xinhua said an announcement of the execution had been issued by the Shijiazhuang Municipal Intermediate People's Court, although a court clerk who answered the phone Tuesday said he was unable to confirm the sentences had been carried out. Most executions in China are performed by firing squad.
Of the others tried and sentenced in January in the scandal, Sanlu's general manager, Tian Wenhua, was given a life sentence after pleading guilty to charges of producing and selling fake or substandard products.
Three other former Sanlu executives were given between five years and 15 years in prison.
There was outrage after news spread of the doctored milk in September 2008, both because of the extent of the contamination and allegations that the government prevented the news from breaking until after the Olympic Games in Beijing.
The cover-up accusations were never publicly investigated, and authorities have since harassed and detained activist parents pushing lawsuits demanding higher compensation and the punishment of government officials. Families were offered a one-time payout – ranging from of 2,000 yuan ($293) to 200,000 yuan ($29,000), depending on the severity of the case – to not pursue lawsuits.
Tuesday's executions brought some comfort to Li Xinquan, who lost one of her 8-month-old twin daughters who was fed with melamine-tainted formula from Sanlu. Li has campaigned to force authorities to admit negligence and provide fair compensation.
"They deserved it. This is the punishment they have received from the government," said Li, whose other daughter survived because she was breast fed.
Another parent, Wang Zhenping, also voiced satisfaction with the executions, reflecting strong support for the death penalty in China, which executes more people annually than the rest of the world combined.
Wang, who said his 2-year-old son appeared to have recovered from melamine poisoning, rejected the compensation offer and said he was growing weary of the struggle.
"I feel like it doesn't really matter now," he said.
U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission Chairman Inez Tenenbaum said last month that Beijing has made progress in increasing product safety.
The numbers of consumer recalls of toys imported from China had fallen from more than 80 in fiscal 2008 to about 40 in fiscal 2009, Tenenbaum said.
"Chinese suppliers and U.S. importers are now on notice from both governments that it is a mistake to depend on good intentions and a few final inspections to ensure compliance with safety requirements," she told a conference in Beijing.