Jan 2, 2009

World - China dairy firms plead for forgiveness in New Year

BEIJING (Reuters) – Please forgive us, a group of Chinese dairy firms said in a New Year text message sent to millions of mobile phone subscribers.

The 22 dairy firms, led by the now-bankrupt Sanlu, apologized and asked forgiveness for the contamination of their products by melamine, which killed at least six babies and made 290,000 ill.

Melamine, an industrial compound used in plastic and fertilizer, was added to milk to cheat protein tests.

The chairwoman of Sanlu, Tian Wenhua, and three other company executives are on trial at a court in northern China for the contamination. Tian, who pleaded guilty, is expected to be sentenced to life imprisonment although the verdict may not be reached for several weeks, the Beijing News said Friday.

"We are deeply sorry for the harm caused to the children and the society," the text message read.

"We sincerely apologize for that and we beg your forgiveness."

Another 17 people involved in producing, selling, buying and adding melamine in raw milk have gone on trial in the last week.

Sanlu said it discovered the problem and reported it to local authorities in Hebei Province on August 2, just days before the Olympic Games began in Beijing.

But nothing became public until early September, when the New Zealand government said it brought complaints by Sanlu's partner, Fonterra, to the attention of the Chinese government. Meanwhile, clusters of babies ill with kidney stones had cropped up in Chinese hospitals.

"If we were in Europe or another country, it wouldn't be a question of apologies, it would be a question of legal responsibility," said Beijinger Shi Zhiqing.

(Reporting by Zhou Xin and Lucy Hornby, Editing by Dean Yates)

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