Source: The Independent

By Clifford Coonan in Beijing

Published: 11 July 2007

When it came, retribution was swift and unyielding - after all, a whole country's food and drugs' exports were at stake.

Zheng Xiaoyu, formerly the man responsible for ensuring the safety of China's foodstuffs and pharmaceuticals, was executed yesterday for corruption.

The Supreme People's Court approved the death sentence for Zheng, 62, the former head of the State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA), for taking kickbacks worth 6.5 million yuan (£420,000) from drug companies to ensure he would approve medicines that should have been taken off the market.

The execution stands as a warning after a series of health scandals have damaged the "Made in China" brand at home and abroad.

"Zheng Xiaoyu's grave irresponsibility in pharmaceutical safety inspection and failure to carry out conscientiously his duties seriously damaged the interests of the state and people," the court said in a statement. The case went to China's top court under new rules that allow judges there to overrule death sentences from lower courts. The new regulations have seen the number of death sentences in China fall, but this time the court was swift in its decision. "The social impact has been utterly malign," the court said of Zheng's actions, adding that even though he had confessed and returned the bribes, this was not enough to warrant mercy.

Zheng was sentenced on 29 May and his appeal was heard last month. It is the first time such a senior official has been executed since 2000. It was unclear how the sentence was carried out - most executions are by shooting in China, but some lethal injections are used, particularly in high-profile cases.

Beijing is under pressure to do something about consumer safety. Billions of pounds of counterfeit and substandard goods, from fake liquor and medicines to face creams, are produced every year in China and there are frequent horror stories about their use.

Some are pure hysteria: reports that bananas from the southern island of Hainan cause Sars, or that Magician brand instant noodles use oil extracted from human corpses. But there are real horror stories. Hong Kong government chemists last year detected Sudan II industrial dye in salted duck eggs, fed to the birds to make the egg yolks unusually red, a colour which consumers see as a sign of high quality.

China revealed in 2004 that 13 babies had died from malnutrition in Anhui province after being fed fake milk powder. And the China Daily reported that up to half of the water used in coolers in Beijing may not be as pure as manufacturers claim. Chinese food exports are being closely examined for toxins following reports of tainted products in the Dominican Republic and Panama as well as poisons in dog food and toothpaste.

Zheng was head of the State Drug Administration from 1998 to 2003 and was director of the SFDA from May 2003 until he retired in 2005. At the SFDA, he oversaw the implementation of a principle called good manufacturing practice, which required companies to obtain a certificate before being able to register new medicines. But in July last year, six people died after being given a Chinese-made antibiotic.

Yan Jiangying, the SFDA spokeswoman, said the case had brought shame to the watchdog, which needed to reflect on the lessons that could be learnt.