China’s Tainted Milk Powder Executions

 Dec 1, 2009
Posted by guest blogger Alison

Who is responsible when products are contaminated?  In Canada, consumer protection laws set out strict requirements that must be met, especially with respect to food products.  Breaching these laws, whether on purpose or through negligence, can land a corporation in legal trouble.  But what are the consequences for a corporation, who cannot serve jail time and who likely is not deterred by financial penalties which they can often absorb and spread amongst shareholders?  Some suggest in the case of corporate wrong doing that the law should punish those individuals that run the company, the directors and officers, as they are the ones most likely in the know or who should have been in the know about the wrongdoing.  However, who is responsible for a wrong perpetrated by a corporation is not always entirely clear.

To circumvent these problems, the courts in China have reportedly taken a different approach.  In the recent tainted milk scandal which caused more than 300,000 children to become sick and at least six children died.  The case was one of China’s worst-ever food safety scandals, involving tainting of infant formula with the industrial chemical melamine, which can cause kidney stones and kidney failure. Melamine, used in the manufacture of plastics and fertilizer, was added to watered-down milk to fool inspectors testing for protein, and to boost profits.

According to the CBC, "Zhang Yujun, a cattle farmer, and Geng Jinping were both convicted of producing and selling a phony protein powder containing melamine, much of it to producers who sold tainted milk to the now-defunct Sanlu Group Co., at the time one of China’s biggest dairies. Zhang was executed for endangering public safety and Geng was executed for producing and selling toxic food, according to the official Xinhua News Agency."
The prosecutions are interesting because these two producers were among the most severely punished, with their executions reportedly carried out earlier this year.  In contrast 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. 

The harsh sentences underscored the government’s resolve in tackling recurring food safety problems and an eagerness by the Communist leadership to move past the embarrassing scandal.  However, can we honestly see justice being carried out in this case when the corporate heads of the company responsible for producing these products are given prison terms while smaller scale farmer-producers are executed for the same level of knowledge?  

What is required in this case is not only a consideration of the way that socioeconomic status and power play into the sentencing of these criminals, but also an examination of the causes of the scandal.  There are, of course, more people and institutional pressures responsible for these events than just a couple of greedy producers out to make an extra dollar.  For example, consumers generally want inexpensive goods. This puts pressure on producers and manufacturers to provide goods that cost less.  Manufacturers and producers, fearing for their livelihood and/or to turn an extra profit, take steps to ensure profit.  Cheaper goods are provided, and the consumers are happy. Unless a tragedy like this comes to light. 

While it is important to consider and critique the ways in which courts in all countries dole out "justice" it is equally important to consider and work toward changing the ways in which our economic system create the problems that the law is then expected to remedy.

Original Story – Nov 24, 2009 – The Associated Press:

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