BEIJING (Reuters) - China, the only country that still systematically takes organs from executed prisoners for use in transplant operations, plans to end the controversial practice from next month, a state-run newspaper said on Friday.

The government has over the last year flagged plans to end the practice, which has drawn criticism from rights groups, who have accused authorities of taking many organs without consent from prisoners or their families, a claim Beijing has denied.

The official China Daily said that human organ transplants will from Jan. 1 rely on voluntary public donations and on donations from living relatives.

"Harvesting organs from executed prisoners for transplants is controversial, despite written consent being required from donors and their relatives," Huang Jiefu, head of the China Organ Donation Committee, was quoted as saying.

"The Chinese government has always been resolute in making efforts to end such a practice," added Huang, a former vice health minister. "Donations by the public should be the only source of organs for transplants."

Supply of human organs falls far short of demand in China, due in part to a traditional belief that bodies should be buried or cremated intact. An estimated 300,000 patients are wait-listed every year for organ transplants, and only about one in 30 ultimately receives a transplant.

That shortage has fueled the illegal trade in organs, and in 2007 the government banned transplants from living donors, except for spouses, blood relatives and step- or adopted family members.

"The most severely ill get donations under the system, regardless of their social status and wealth," Huang said. "Judicial departments are not entitled to decide where the organ donations go."

China does not publish the numbers of people it executes, though the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, a grouping of more than 150 non-government bodies, bar associations and other groups, estimates it was about 3,000 last year.


(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)