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Chinese courts begin to accept tainted milk suits

world Updated: Mar 03, 2009 11:32 IST

Chinese courts have begun accepting lawsuits from families of children sickened in last year's massive tainted milk scandal that highlighted the need for major overhauls in China's food safety regulation, an official newspaper said on Tuesday. The scandal broke late last year, with nearly 300,000 children across the country developing kidney problems after drinking infant formula contaminated with the industrial chemical melamine. At least six babies died.

The English-language China Daily quoted a top justice official as saying that courts across the country were ready to accept cases from families seeking greater compensation than that offered in a government-backed plan.

"A small number of the infant victims' parents have not accepted the government-led compensation and have prepared pleas," Shen Deyong, executive vice president of China's highest court, said. The first step in China's legal system is for a lawsuit to be accepted by a court, meaning the paperwork is taken in and entered into the court system. The next step is for the court to decide whether to act on the lawsuit by opening an investigation _ but it can also reject the case.

The report said more than 90 percent of the victims' families have accepted the government-backed compensation payments, which are from the dairies involved in the scandal.

Under that plan, families whose children died received 200,000 yuan ($29,000), while others received 30,000 yuan ($4,380) for serious cases of kidney stones and 2,000 yuan ($290) for less severe cases.

A lawsuit filed by families of 54 children who were sickened was accepted Monday by the Qingdao Intermediate People's Court in northern China's Shandong province, the newspaper reported. It was filed by families whose children drank Shengyuan brand infant formula, whose parent company is based in Qingdao. The parents are demanding greater compensation and long-term treatment for their babies.

It was the first time a Chinese court has accepted a lawsuit from victims in the scandal.

The court will respond to the lawsuit within a week, Li Jinglin, a Beijing-based lawyer representing the families, was cited as saying by China Daily.

The scandal has been blamed on unscrupulous middlemen accused of adding melamine, which is high in nitrogen, to watered-down milk to fool quality tests for protein content. When ingested, melamine can cause kidney stones and kidney failure.

China's legislature enacted a tough food safety law Saturday, promising tougher penalties for makers of tainted products. Several food scares in recent years have exposed serious flaws in monitoring of the nation's food supply.

The law, which was five years in the making, consolidates hundreds of disparate regulations and standards covering China's 500,000 food processing companies.