Screen shot 2010-11-11 at 8.34.51 AM.pngOn a day the China Daily ran a story touting a new openess to the public about foodborne illnesses, I am sitting in the magnificent Shanghai Airport about to leave on a flight to the US East Coast in a few hours – yes, it is Thursday here. This is my fourth trip to China in as many years as one of the lead sponsor’s to what has proven to be one of the best food safety conferences on the planet. Also, during my trips I have been honored to speak about civil justice in several of the leading Chinese Law Schools. Perhaps some of the students and faculty have been listening, but the Courts, and perhaps the Government, still are afraid of an anguished father and his crusading lawyer.

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I spent the day yesterday in the conference and had the opportunity to tell the delegates – business and governmental officials alike, “Why it is a bad idea to poison your customers.” Many said after my speech, and showing the video below, moved many to tears. I then hosted dinner for some fifty speakers, including many from the Chinese government. It was not until I got back late to my hotel that this headline was sitting in my inbox – “Chinese baby formula advocate sentenced to 2 1/2 years in jail for incitement.”

Keith B. Richburg of the Washington Post Foreign Service reported “[a] Beijing court handed down a 2 1/2-year prison sentence Wednesday to Zhao Lianhai, who became an activist after his son suffered kidney problems from contaminated baby formula. Zhao was convicted of inciting public disorder because he set up a Web site to help other parents with sick children share information and demand compensation.“

For those who have forgotten, “[t]he baby formula scandal, which swept the country in 2008, was the worst in a series of tainted food cases in China, causing the deaths of at least six infants and leaving 300,000 seriously ill. The baby formula and milk had been contaminated with melamine, an industrial plastic, to make it bulkier – which increased profits for the manufacturer. But the melamine also can cause kidney stones and kidney disease in children and infants. 

China responded to the scandal by prosecuting officials of the Sanlu dairy company, some local government workers and farmers involved in the contamination. Several were sentenced to lengthy prison terms, and three people were executed (some, not too bad ideas). But families said the government’s response and compensation were inadequate, and Zhao emerged as their champion.”

One of Zhao’s attorneys, Li Fangping (who I met with two years ago while in Beijing), “said the sentence was largely political, meant as “a kind of suppression and deterrence” to the family members affected by the tainted milk scandal who were exercising a “normal, rational and legitimate” right to petition the government. “The impact on society will be great,” he said.

Perhaps, members of the Court and the Government should see the video I showed the delegates: