Plasticizer contamination triggers food security fear across Taiwan Strait

10:15, June 05, 2011      

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On the window of a stylish cafe along Taipei's busy downtown street Zhongxiao East Rd, there hangs a board written with big black characters, saying, "All products in our shop do not contain plasticizer."

For several days on the front page of Apple Daily, a popular local newspaper, big-name beverage companies like Coca Cola have put on half-page advertisements stating that their products were found free of toxic plasticizers and safe to drink.

The plasticizer contamination scandal has swept the island's beverage and food industry, with the toxic substances even found in products sold by high-end restaurants and pharmacies.

The strong confidence, which Taiwan people used to have in their food safety, has been shaken.

"I don't know what to eat. Even soft drinks, so common and easy to get, are not safe. What about others? I'm really worried that it is just the beginning and worse things will emerge," said Lee, a mother of two children in her late thirties, who refused to give her full name.

Lee worries for her children who love soft drinks, which were first found contaminated by toxic plasticizers.

Lee has sent a bottle of dietary supplement, which she has been eating, for toxicity examination.

Since the plasticizer contamination scandal broke, local governments in Taiwan have offered free examination services for its citizens.

According to the Taipei health department, since they began the service on May 27, more than 2,700 pieces of food and dietary supplements have been submitted for examination by local residents.

"The only solution is to cook for myself and eat less food sold in the market," Lee says.

FROM SUPERMARKET TO HIGH-END RESTAURANTS

In mid May, Taiwan's health department announced that they found food addictive supplier Yu Shen Chemical Co. illegally added cancerogenic plasticizer DEHP in clouding agents and sold toxic agents to lots of food and beverage producers.

Soon another addictive supplier Pin Han Perfumery Co. was also caught adding another plasticizer DINP in clouding agents it produced.

The two companies replaced the ingredient of palm oil in clouding agents with plasticizers to reduce the cost and improve performance.

The clouding agents were used by all the two companies' clients, including leading beverage brands such as Uni-President Ent., whose product line includes sport drinks, canned tea and juice.

According to the island's health department, more than 780 products, including soft drinks, jam, juice and diet supplements, have been found contaminated by toxic plasticizers so far, with at least 244 companies involved in the scandal.

Following packaged beverages, juice and flavored tea sold at cold drink shops were also found contaminated.

A juice supplier named Jin Guoo Wang Food Co. was a client of Yu Shen Chemical Co., and had mixed toxic clouding agents into its juices which were then sold to cold drink shops in Taipei.

Prosecutors and police traced Jin Guoo Wang's client list and found Creation Food Corp, a main wholesaler of juice. They seized about 5,800 cartons of juice suspected of being contaminated with DEHP after they raided the company and its warehouse on Thursday afternoon.

The company has admitted it supplied juice to about 800 restaurants and cafes on the island, including several five-star hotels in Taipei, without knowing that they were contaminated, said Chiang Yu-mei, spokeswoman with Taipei's Health Department.

The plasticizer contamination scandal could badly damage the local beverage industry and the loss might be huge as summer is the high season for the industry, said Pan Jin-tin, chairman of the Taiwan Chain Stores and Franchise Association and president of Taiwan FamilyMart Co. Ltd.

The sale of beverages in Taiwan totals about 70 billion New Taiwan dollars (2.45 billion U.S. dollars) and the sale from July to September usually accounts for 40 percent of the annual figure, he said.

Given the impact of the contamination scandal, sales in the next few months are likely to drop by 30 percent, he said.

"The impact of the plasticizer contamination scandal on the sale of beverages has not been obvious but we expect it will reduce them by 10 to 20 percent," said Margery Ho, public relations manager with RT-Mart International Ltd, a main supermarket in Taipei.

WORRY ACROSS TAIWAN STRAIT

When the plasticizer scandal broke in Taiwan, the other side of the Taiwan Strait was quickly alerted.

The mainland authorities suspended imports of tainted products and tightened the examination of food and beverage from Taiwan. Hong Kong and Macao authorities took similar actions.

In late May, Shanghai quarantine authorities found 792 boxes of contaminated sport drinks from Taiwan. On June 1, Guangdong provincial government also announced that they found a local food addictive company had imported toxic clouding agents from Taiwan.

In its latest update on the import ban posted on its website, the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ) said the mainland would suspend imports of 812 kinds of products, including beverages, food products and food additives, made by 245 companies.

On the blacklist, including asparagus juice made by the popular brand Uni-President, are also a number of children products such as nutrient branded Karihome made by Taiwan Direct Biological Technology Company.

This is a much longer list than the original one issued by the AQSIQ on June 1, when the quality watchdog said the mainland would suspend imports of 22 kinds of beverages, food products and food additives from Taiwan that are produced by companies suspected of using bis (2-ethylhexyl)phthalate (DEHP).

On Wednesday, the food safety commission under the State Council, or cabinet, ordered increased inspections and instant recalls of beverages, food products and additives contaminated with DEHP from wholesellers and retailers.

The mainland-based State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA) ordered all restaurants on Thursday not to purchase or use food and food additives that have been placed on the AQSIQ blacklist.

Further, the SFDA ordered two DEHP-tainted health foods to be taken off shelves and be suspended from production on Friday.

Taiwan authorities so far have not given a clear list of where tainted products might have been exported to.

An official with Taiwan's health department surnamed Yang told Xinhua that, because the two food addictive companies had long dominated the market and the distribution network was large and complicated, the investigation to trace contaminated products would take time and great efforts.

Taiwan police have arrested the owners of Yu Shen Chemical Co., Pin Han Perfumery Co. and Jin Guoo Wang Food Co.

Since May 31, producers of five categories of food and beverages have been ordered to present certificates showing that their products are free of six kinds of plasticizers, before the products can be put back on store shelves.

The five categories of products are sports drinks, juices, tea drinks, fruit jams, fruit syrups and jellies as well as dietary supplements in capsule, tablet or powder form, which all usually contain clouding agents.

The island's environment watchdog also announced it would tighten the supervision of plasticizers. They planned to add eight plasticizers including DEHP under the tightest certification.

Entrepreneurs and industry analysts have called for the establishment of a joint food safety system between the mainland and Taiwan as the island's tainted beverage scandal continues to brew.

The Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement signed in 2010 between the mainland and Taiwan will boost cross-Strait trade of agricultural and food products, which makes the joint system necessary, said Yang Jinfa, president of Taiwan Merchant Association of Hangzhou City, east China's Zhejiang Province.

Source: Xinhua

 
 
     
 
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