China's Former Food Safety Chief Put to Death

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China executed the former head of its food and drug administration for approving fake drugs and taking bribes. He became a symbol of the flaws and corruption surrounding product safety. Officials from various Chinese ministries, including Commerce, discuss recent food safety scares.


China today executed the former head of its Food and Drug Administration. That official had been convicted of accepting bribes in exchange for approving fake and substandard medicines.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn joins us from Beijing. Hello.

ANTHONY KUHN: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now this sentence was handed down in May. It was harsh. And it was swift. Why?

KUHN: Well, it may sound very harsh to us, but to Chinese folks this is what it takes to placate public anger. The official, Zheng Xiaoyu, was head of China's Food and Drug Administration from 1998 to 2005. And according to Chinese media, he was convicted of taking more than $800,000 in bribes. And in exchange, he put the Food and Drug Administration's stamp of approval on around half a dozen fake medicines, including one antibiotic which is believed to have killed as many as 10 people in China.

Now, there's been a lot of controversy. People point out that penalties in general for violating food and drug laws are too light and that other officials have not been given this death sentence for much worse corruption. But the government feels it was a terrible blot on its image. And as another FDA official pointed out yesterday, they're concerned that the food and drug issue could lead to actual social instability.

MONTAGNE: Well, as you say, in a separate case another official was convicted for accepting bribes - given a life sentence. Will these convictions make China's drugs any safer?

KUHN: Well, the other FDA official, who was in charge of registering new drugs, who was given a life sentence, shows a really serious problem in the drug industry, which Chinese consumers know about. And that is that a lot of Chinese drug companies, instead of going out and researching and developing their own drugs, will take a foreign drug, make a few slight changes to it, and then bribe an official to approve that drug as theirs. And this is what Chinese are really angry about, because they know that it's very widespread for Chinese drug companies to pay doctors kickbacks to prescribe their medicines and to bribe hospitals and officials to get access to markets, and the cost of this corruption, of course, is eventually picked up by the Chinese consumer. And that's why healthcare in China is unaffordable to many, and that's why people are really angry.

MONTAGNE: Officials from several Chinese agencies met with reporters today, part of a government campaign to reassure consumers that it is in fact tackling a spate of scandals related not just to drugs but also to tainted food, and some of which have been exported to the United States. What is the government doing about that?

KUHN: Well, for one thing it's clear that it's in complete damage control mode today. It brought out officials from the ministries of health and agriculture, commerce, the Food and Drug Administration and the Quality Supervision Administration, and they went into great detail about how China is building up its food safety system to check products from the farm all the way to the family dinner table.

At the same time, they admitted that China's regulatory standards lag behind developed nations. They got underway late. Some of the interesting things they said in the way of new measures is a campaign to crack down on small mom and pop food processing plants. They said that 78 percent of all of China's food processing plants have less than 10 people. In other words, they're basically just families processing foods in their own homes and that safety standards tend to be very poor there.

They also pointed out a new measure to publicize the names of the officials who are approving drugs so that they can be held responsible if there are fake medicines or substandard medicines approved.

MONTAGNE: Though unhelpfully for the government in this campaign there's a report today of yet another fake product on the streets of Beijing.

KUHN: Yes. Beijing media have been reporting in the past couple of days that there are problems with the city's bottled water supply and some of the branded bottles of waters in fact may just be tap water with a name brand on them. In fact, up to half of that water supply.

Now the government has said that, you know, 99 percent of its exports meet quality standards and that more than 80 percent of its domestic products are up to snuff. But I think that the guarantees of safety that the government is giving are ringing hollow with many consumers because the cases that they are not catching are enough to keep in the headlines just about every day.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Beijing, where today the former head of China's Food and Drug Administration was put to death on bribery charges.

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