SHANGHAI, May 29 — The former head of China’s top food and drug safety agency was sentenced to death today after pleading guilty to corruption and accepting bribes, according to the state-controlled news media.
Zheng Xiaoyu, who served as director of China’s Food & Drug Administration from its founding in 1998 until mid 2005, was detained in February as part of a government investigation into the agency that is supposed to be the nation’s food and drug watchdog.
Two other top agency officials were also detained in February.
The unusually harsh sentence for the former director comes at a time of heightened concerns about the quality and safety of China’s food and drug system after a series of scandals involving tainted food and phony drugs.
China is also under mounting pressure to overhaul its food export controls after two Chinese companies were accused this year of shipping contaminated pet food ingredients to the United States, triggering one of the largest pet food recalls in United States history.
The nation’s regulators are also coming under scrutiny after diethylene glycol, a toxic chemical sometimes used in antifreeze, ended up in cough syrup and toothpaste in Latin America.
In Panama, more than 100 people died last year after consuming cough medicine laced with diethylene glycol that was shipped from China mislabeled as a harmless syrup.
The incidents pose a huge threat to China’s growing food and drug exports and have already led to international calls for new testing and screening methods for Chinese-made goods.
The problems are more serious in China because tens of thousands of people are sickened or killed every year because of rampant counterfeiting and phony food and drugs.
For instance, last year 11 people died in China after being treated with an injection tainted by a fake chemical. And 6 people died and 80 others fell ill after taking an antibiotic that was produced with a “substandard disinfectant.”
Small Chinese drug makers have long been accused of manufacturing phony or substandard drugs and marketing them to the nation’s hospitals and pharmaceutical companies. And mass food poisonings involving tainted food products are common.
The Chinese government, however, has stepped up its patrols in recent weeks, announcing a series of measures aimed at strengthening food and drug safety and cracking down on counterfeiting operations.
Today, the government said it was preparing to release its first regulation on nationwide food recalls.
The government also said it would crack down on food products that are being illegally exported, bypassing food inspections.
As for Mr. Zheng, the former head of the food and drug agency, the government said that while serving the agency he took bribes worth about $800,000 in exchange for approving drug production licenses.
Worried that many of those drugs may be substandard, China is now reviewing over 170,000 production licenses issued by his agency over the past decade.