China set to try suspect in case of tainted dumplings exported to Japan

Kyodo

Chinese judicial authorities will begin the trial Tuesday of a man accused of lacing “gyoza” dumplings with a toxic chemical that led to high-profile food poisoning cases in Japan about five years ago, the Japanese Embassy in Beijing said Friday.

The cases sparked concern among Japanese consumers over the safety of food imported from China.

Ten people in three families, in Chiba and Hyogo prefectures, showed symptoms of poisoning after eating frozen dumplings produced at a factory of Tianyang Food in Shijiazhuang in Hebei province between December 2007 and January 2008.

An investigation in Japan determined the dumplings were contaminated with a pesticide called methamidophos.

The 39-year-old Chinese defendant, Lu Yueting, a former temporary employee of the food company, was indicted in August 2010.

The embassy was notified of the trial date by local judicial authorities at a time when Japan and China are embroiled in a fierce dispute over the sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.

Bilateral relations have sunk to their lowest point in years since the Japanese government last September effectively nationalized the uninhabited islets that have been under its control. The islands are called Diaoyu in China.

A ruling on Lu, expected in the not-so-distant future, is seen as delicate as already frayed relations between the two countries could worsen depending on the outcome.

“This may be an unexpected (political) curve ball from China,” a source close to bilateral relations said, noting the launch of the trial after many years may be aimed at easing tensions with Japan, where Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling coalition earlier this month scored a comfortable win in the Upper House election, paving the way for it to control both Diet chambers.

If he faces a heavy sentence, there is a possibility anti-Japan sentiment could worsen in China.

In a rare move, the Chinese judicial authorities are planning to allow some Japanese officials and reporters to observe the first trial session, according to an embassy official.

After the food-poisoning cases erupted, investigations ran into difficulty, with Japan and China blaming each other for the problem and arguing that the dumplings could have been laced in either country.

But in March 2010, China announced it had arrested Lu, who had been employed by the food company since 1993, for allegedly injecting the pesticide into the frozen dumplings.

He is suspected of stealing the pesticide kept by cleaning staff at the factory and injecting it into the dumplings with a syringe on three occasions between October and December 2007 over frustration that his wife, who was also working at the factory, did not receive a bonus when she took maternity leave.