Milk products made by Sanlu and several other Chinese firms were later found to have been tainted with the industrial chemical melamine.

Tian and three other top Sanlu executives facing similar charges could be sentenced to life imprisonment if convicted.

"If they offered me compensation, I won't accept, because what do I need this money for since my son is gone"

Tian Xiaowei, farmer

Citing prosecutors in the case, Xinhua said Sanlu had received complaints about its infant formula as early as December 2007, after some parents said they noticed red sediment in their children's urine.

But the company failed to issue a public recall until September the following year, during which time it earned $6.9m in sales of its milk powder products, the news agency said.

Bankrupt

Last week a court in the northern city of Shijiazhuang declared Sanlu bankrupt in the wake of mounting debts arising from the scandal.

Aside from Tian, more than a dozen others have also been accused of producing and marketing melamine to milk producers as well as mixing it into raw milk sold to major dairies.

Prosecutors said Sanlu knew about the tainted milk since December 2007 [GALLO/GETTY]
However Melissa Chan, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Beijing, said the many of victims' families and their lawyers view the court proceedings as a show trial.

The scandal led to the deaths of at least six babies and caused close to 300,000 others across China to suffer urinary problems.

Authorities say suppliers mixed the nitrogen-rich melamine powder – which can cause kidney stones and kidney failure when ingested in large amounts – into raw milk to cheat quality tests for protein.

Last month the Chinese government announced that some of the dairy companies had offered a $160m compensation plan in the form of cash payouts and a medical fund to cover bills for lingering health problems.

However several families have protested that the planned payout by dairies is too low, and lawyers have pledged to continue attempts to sue for more compensation.

"If they offered me compensation, I won't accept, because what do I need this money for since my son is gone," said Tian Xiaowei, a part-time truck driver, whose baby died in August after being fed what he said was melamine-tainted milk formula.