Beijing (CNN) -- Amid deepening public concerns over the country's food safety following a wave of recent scandals, China's highest court has ordered judges nationwide to hand down harsher sentences, including the death penalty, to people convicted of violating food safety regulations.
In a directive released by the state-run Xinhua news agency over the weekend, the Supreme People's Court said in cases where people die from food safety violations, convicted suspects should be given the death sentence, while criminals involved in non-lethal cases should face longer prison terms and larger fines.
It also called for harsher punishment for government officials found protecting food safety violators or accepting bribes from them.
"The overall food safety situation is stable and improving, but incidents that still occur regularly have seriously endangered people's lives and caused strong social reactions," the directive quoted Wang Shengjun, the country's top judge, as saying. "Our task to maintain food safety remains challenging."
From milk laced with melamine, pigs fed with performance-enhancing drugs to watermelons juiced up with growth-stimulating chemicals, a series of recent scandals have outraged Chinese consumers, despite ramped-up government crackdown and state media campaign against food safety violations.
From last September to April this year, Chinese courts have tried and convicted 106 people accused of violating food safety, including two who received life imprisonment last month in a "melamine milk" case, Xinhua reported.
"It's clear that the credibility of the system will suffer," said Peter K. Ben Embarek, the World Health Organization's food safety official. "The (Chinese) consumer will continue to lose confidence in Chinese products and consumers abroad will equally lose confidence in Chinese products."
The latest announcement by China's supreme court, however, seems to run counter to another recent initiative to limit the use of the death penalty by the same court.
In its annual work report, the Supreme People's Court last week instructed lower courts to suspend death sentences for two years if an immediate execution is not deemed necessary.
The Chinese legislature had earlier amended the country's penal code to reduce the number of crimes punishable by death by 13 to 55.
China executes more people than all other countries combined, according to Amnesty International. It estimated the figure, considered a state secret, to be in the thousands last year for "a wide range of crimes that include non-violent offences."
The number of executions elsewhere in the world in 2010 was at least 527, according to the London-based group's annual report released earlier this year.
CNN's Eunice Yoon contributed to this report.