Four executives of the Sanlu Group, the major dairy at the center of China's tainted milk scandal, went on trial Wednesday at a court in Shijiazhuang, capital of northern Hebei Province.
The Shijiazhuang Intermediate People's Court accused Tian Wenhua, Sanlu's former board chairwoman and general manager and three other executives of producing and selling fake or sub-standard products.
The court opened at 8 a.m. The three other executives are former deputy general managers Wang Yuliang and Hang Zhiqi, and Wu Jusheng, a former executive in charge of the firm's milk division. The four defendants were arrested on Sept. 26.
Wang was in a wheelchair after losing the use of his legs in a suicide attempt, according to court sources.
Tian told the court that she learned about the tainted milk complaints from consumers in mid-May, and then the company set up a working team led by her to handle the case.
Sanlu Group submitted a written report about the problematic milk powder to the Shijiazhuang city government on August 2, she said.
In March, Sanlu and other dairies began to receive reports of children becoming sick after drinking the baby formula tainted with melamine, an industrial chemical used in plastics.
Milk dealers were accused of mixing the melamine or "protein powder" to diluted milk to make it appear high in protein content.
The scandal was exposed to the public in early September.
The Ministry of Health has said it was likely the contamination killed at least six babies. Another 294,000 infants suffered from urinary problems such as kidney stones.
"As the scandal has victims across the country, these trials will tell people what the truth is and who should be punished," said He Weifang, a law professor at Peking University, in a telephone interview with Xinhua.
"In fact, what needs review should include not only the crime of individuals or an enterprise, but also the whole enterprise system so as to make managerial staff attach more importance to product quality and long-term development," he said.
"More important, the trials provide an opportunity to find problems and improve product quality and push forward the promulgation of relevant industry laws," said the professor.
Sanlu Group stopped production on Sept. 12. A bankruptcy petition for Sanlu has been filed in the face of a 1.1 billion yuan debt.
Prior to the trial of these four, 17 people have gone on trial on charges of producing, adding melamine-laced "protein powder" to milk or selling the tainted milk to Sanlu or other dairies.
If convicted of producing and selling fake or substandard products, defendants can be imprisoned for terms up to life.
The scandal led to the resignation of China's chief quality supervisor Li Changjiang. Several officials in Shijiazhuang were also fired.