Mainland recalls Taiwan's possibly tainted drinks

BEIJING - The scare over a cancer-causing plastic additive in food and drink products in Taiwan has spread to the Chinese mainland, with more than 4,800 beverage bottles suspected of contamination recalled, Beijing's top quality watchdog announced on Friday.

The additive, DEHP, which makes plastic soft and pliable, may have tainted 792 cases of imported beverages from Taiwan entering Shanghai in March, the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine said at a news conference.

As of Thursday night, Chinese mainland importers had recalled 518 cases of the beverage, which was produced by Taiwan Yes Sports Drink, said Li Yuanping, a spokesman of the administration.

In 2010, 256 cases of the same beverage entered Shanghai in three batches, but none were found contaminated with DEHP and no other ports except Shanghai have so far reported similar entries, Li said.

Liu Junhai, vice-chairman of the China Consumers' Association, told China Daily on Friday that the DEHP contamination in Taiwan is comparable in severity to the scandal of melamine-tainted dairy products on the mainland in 2008.

Liable manufacturers from Taiwan should weather the crisis with honesty and care for consumers to avoid a disgraceful shutdown, which was the fate of the Sanlu Group after the 2008 melamine scandal, Liu said.

"Product recalls should be unconditional and smoothly handled without any hassle at supermarkets or store counters, like demanding purchase receipts from buyers," he said.

Liu also called for a zero-tolerance policy nationwide for companies producing harmful food products and a systematic re-evaluation of the health effects of food additives.

Sang Liwei, a food safety lawyer and the China representative of the Global Food Safety Forum, went further to say that using illegal food additives should be punished with the same resolve now demonstrated in cases of drunk driving, which are considered criminal offenses.

"The news from Taiwan was a shock, as people usually believe pricey imports have less quality problems," he said.

"It gives us grounds to question the effectiveness of China's import-export inspections. DEHP should have been detected before entering Shanghai in March."

There should also be a viable compensation scheme that promises to pay for possible future damages on the basis of recognized health risks, but it remains unclear which parties - including manufacturers and suppliers from Taiwan and importers and distributors from the mainland - should foot the bill, Sang said.

Wu Yixiu, a campaigner at Greenpeace China, told China Daily the unfolding beverage contamination scandal in Taiwan involved the same substance, DEHP, that Greenpeace recently identified as carrying serious health risks in plastic toys for children.

Safety concerns of DEHP exposure include hormone malfunction, reproductive toxicity and genital abnormalities in babies, especially boys, Wu said.

The European Union has announced restrictions on the production and use of DEHP in the region, which will come into effect within three to five years, while China has yet to set a timetable, she said.

Taiwan's health authorities announced on May 23 that DEHP had been found in some bottled beverages and dairy products, and has demanded 168 food processors recall more than 1 million tainted items.

The toxic additive was supplied by Yu Shen Chemical Co, whose owner, Lai Chun-chieh, 57, has been detained by prosecutors pending further investigation, according to earlier reports.

The disturbing discovery has sent shock waves outside the island. Hong Kong residents have been warned to stop drinking sports drinks imported from Taiwan, the special administrative region's Center for Food Safety said in a statement on Wednesday

Kang Jan-jou, a top official of Taiwai's food and drug administration, said his agency had informed the World Health Organization and health authorities of importers of the tainted products including the mainland, Vietnam and the United States.