A Chinese court has handed down harsh sentences in the baby milk scandal which killed at least six children and left 300,000 ill with kidney and urinary tract problems. The accused were found to have adulterated baby milk formula with the toxic industrial chemical melamine in order to make the milk appear to contain more protein. But it is unlikely that the trial in the Sanlu company case is going to end the discussion about China’s worst food scandal in recent times.
A baby suffering from kidney stone after drinking Sanlu brand milk powder in Sichuan province last autumn
A court in Shijiazhuang in China’s Hebei province, where the Sanlu Group is based, has sentenced two men to death and several other of the accused to prison terms ranging up to a life sentence. Sanlu was the dairy company which had sold the largest amount of tainted milk and had continued to do so after the first children had developed kidney ailments and even died. Tian Wenhua, the former general manager of Sanlu, was given a life sentence together with a fine of two and a half million euros.
Li Fangping is one of the lawyers representing the victims’ parents. He is not fully satisfied with the verdict:
"In the case of the Sanlu company, production had been going on for many years. From this it is obvious that the state authorities which control food safety didn’t fulfil their responsibilities. In this sense I find something is missing in the court ruling. If only these men are held accountable, it’s not really being fair to them, especially if they get such harsh sentences!"
The two men sentenced to death are Zhang Yujun, who produced and distributed the highest amount of fake protein powder laced with melamine in the country, over 600 tonnes, and Geng Jinping, one of the middlemen who played an important role in mixing this powder with watered-down milk from farmers and selling this deadly cocktail to dairy companies such as Sanlu. But many Chinese wonder if these local criminals are not merely scapegoats in a case which has much larger dimensions.
"I personally think it won’t solve the problems of the public health system," says lawyer Li Fangping. "We wonder if those responsible for controlling food safety should not also be held accountable, including the local government."
Call for structural reforms
Li Fangping believes that without thorough reforms in different fields, similar food scandals can happen again in China:
"One area is improving the system by which officials are held accountable. The second is that we should strengthen the role of NGOs including consumer associations. And the third would be to establish a system of punishment and compensation."
Dozens of further accused are still awaiting trial. In any case, the legal battle about the melamine scandal is far from over, as several affected parents have appealed against compensation arrangements which they regard as insufficient. Some parents had travelled to Shijiazhuang for the trial, but the session where the verdicts were announced was off limits to the public.