China Dairy Exec Pleads Guilty in Melamine Case

Tian Wenhua, 66, was the general manager of the now-bankrupt Sanlu group, one of China’s largest dairy producers. Her plea came on the first day of a trial of four Sanlu executives in Shijiazhuang, in the northern province of Hebei.

Sanlu was the largest of 22 dairy firms implicated in the scandal. The firms were found to have sold milk laced with melamine, a chemical used to make plastics. Melamine can make watered-down milk appear to contain more protein.

The tainted milk killed at least six children in China and sickened hundreds of thousands more, and caused a global recall of Chinese dairy products.

Tian admitted that she knew of the tainted products by May 2008, but did not tell authorities until September.

It is unclear whether she and the other executives could face the death penalty, according to Reuters. China’s state-run Xinhua news agency said that the maximum sentence for the charges was life in prison, but the official China Daily said Wednesday that Tian could face the death penalty.

Foreign journalists were not allowed to watch the trial.

Families of some of the children harmed by the milk powder gathered outside the courthouse to protest Wednesday.

Although the government last week ordered the 22 dairy firms found to have sold tainted milk to pay a total of $160 million to families of children who became ill or died, some of the families will receive only a one-time payment of about $300.

“I’m a farmer. I don’t have money to pay for the treatment. My son is still sick and he’s not been able to get treatment,” one man demonstrating outside the courthouse told Agence France-Presse.

Victims also complained that they had not been allowed to tell their version of events in court, and that the courts had rejected civil compensation lawsuits.