Three Chinese dairy executives could face trial as early as next month for selling tainted milk products, prosecutors said Thursday, admitting the case had been under investigation for months.
The case against the general manager of Shanghai Panda Dairy and his two deputies comes after "illegally high" levels of melamine were found in powdered and condensed milk, a spokesman for Shanghai prosecutors told AFP.
"We will file the case with the court in around half a month," the spokesman said, asking not to be named due to the sensitivity of the case.
The three -- who face charges of producing and selling toxic and hazardous food -- could face trial before the end of February, he added, saying the case would take at least a month to reach the courtroom from the time of filing.
Shanghai Panda Dairy was shut down and put on a "black list" during a tainted milk scandal in 2008, in which at least six infants died and nearly 300,000 were made sick by milk products laced with melamine, a toxic chemical.
Panda Dairy's products were found to have the second-highest levels of melamine in the nation, behind the now bankrupt Sanlu Group, the Shanghai Daily reported last week.
Authorities had allowed Panda Dairy to resume production, but the latest probe revealed it had reused tainted condensed milk that had been recalled from the market, the spokesman said.
He admitted government inspectors had discovered the products contaminated with melamine, which gives the appearance of a higher protein content, months before Chinese media first reported the dairy's closure last week.
"The case was uncovered quite early, actually," the spokesman said.
"Quality supervision authorities found the problem in a February-April inspection. The case was then handed to the police in April and the related people were detained by the police in April," he said.
He did not comment on why authorities waited so long to make the investigation public, but Chinese media have suggested the case was concealed out of fear that the revelations could damage China's economic recovery.
A total of 21 people have been convicted for their roles in that scandal. Two were executed and former Sanlu boss Tian Wenhua was given life in prison.
One other person was given a suspended death sentence, a punishment that is routinely commuted to life imprisonment, while 15 others were jailed for two to 15 years.
Sanlu, once one of China's largest dairy manufacturers, was declared bankrupt in February 2009 after having amassed 1.1 billion yuan (161 million dollars) of debt, Xinhua reported at the time.