China's recent record for food and product safety is dismal. In the last couple of years, the presence of lead or other dangerous chemicals like melamine in a variety of items - milk, toothpaste, toys, pet food, fish, to name a few - has roiled domestic Chinese markets and prompted global fear of products made or grown in that nation. Chinese officials have pledged to address the problems, but those promises have been more talk than action. That attitude, at last, seems to be changing.
Last week, the former head of one of Chi-na's largest dairy companies pleaded guilty to selling chemical-laced milk and related products like powdered baby formula. The current trial of other company executives is drawing widespread press coverage and is being avidly followed across China.
That there is so much attention focused on the trial is tacit admission from the gov-ernment that earlier attempts to minimize the fallout from the tainted milk and other product scandals has failed. China's massive export business, already buffeted by the world economic crisis, is suffering even more from a growing consumer reluctance to buy Chinese products. Officials obviously hope a highly publicized trial such as the one of the milk company officials will convince customers at home and abroad that the country is doing something to improve the safety of its prod-ucts. It will take more than one showcase trial, however, to do so.
Testimony at the trial reveals just how rudimentary safety standards are in China. It shows, too, that corporate and government corruption are widespread.
Tian Wenhua, who pleaded guilty, admitted that her company knew about problems with its product in May, but that the government was not notified until August. Production was not stopped until September. Between May and September, the company produced more than 900 tons of melamine-laced baby milk powder that can cause kidney problems and other ailments. Indeed, nearly 300,000 illnesses and six deaths have been linked to the tainted product.
The admission of guilt - which could result in a life sentence or the death penalty - by one of the highest-ranking corporate executives to go on trial for safety violations suggests that China is finally getting seri-ous about food and product safety. One trial, though, does not mean there has been a major shift in Chinese policy. At best, it signals a new understanding by Chinese leaders that inattention to safety problems can put a serious dent in the country's lucrative export business.
The real measure of China's commitment to product safety has yet to come. Consumers around the world will know the government is really serious when it voluntarily agrees to meet tough international safety standards and when companies and officials tied to problems are routinely brought to justice. Until then, consumers of Chinese products still have good reason to worry about their safety.