Taiwan government scrambling to 'detox' food industry

While a clearer picture of the use of carcinogenic plasticizers in the food industry is emerging, government agencies are scrambling to "detox" the food industry and retail market by trying to flush out tainted products and materials and be realistic about the risk.

In an attempt to set apart risky and non-risky foodstuffs and beverages, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) under the Department of Health (DOH) yesterday said the problem was confined to six categories of foods and beverages, which are sports drinks, fruit juices, teas, fruit jams and preserves, food powders, and food or food supplement tablets.

While these six categories of products must come with test certificates before they can be sold again at supermarkets and other retailers, other food and beverages are considered safe because plasticizers are not known to be used in their manufacture, according to FDA.

To leave no stone unturned, the government yesterday ordered the country's 17,000 supermarkets, warehouse retailers, and convenience stores to remove all products containing emulsifiers (which might contain plasticizer) from their shelves unless they are certified as safe within three days.

The Ministry of Education (MOE) also has ordered all schools to remove such products from vending machines, canteens and candy shops on their campuses until they are proven safe. Noncompliant schools would be punished, an MOE official said yesterday in response to a query raised by a lawmaker from the opposition Democratic Progressive Party.

A total of 130 products made by 95 manufacturers that source materials from longtime plasticizer Yu Shen Company are being investigated and will be removed from store shelves if they are found to be laced with the poisonous plasticizer Di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate, or DEHP, a DOH official said yesterday.

These products include sports beverages, health foods, and supplements manufactured by well-known food industry businesses such as Weichuan, Hey Song, the King Car Group, Brand's, Taiwan Sugar Corporation, and goat milk producer Karihome, according to Tsai Shu-cheng, head of the food division under the DOH's Food and Drug Administration (FDA). State-run enterprise Taiyen's popular collagen powder and two of Sinphar Group's vitamin tablets for children have also been found to contain DEHP. However, eight Taiwan Sugar products have been cleared after being tested.

Beverages were first found to be problematic, but now health foods, be they in capsules or tablets or other forms, are in the same boat, too, because their ingredients, such as fruit juice powders and lactic acid powder, contain plasticizer, Tsai said.

As of yesterday, more than 40,000 kg of fruit jams and about 1 million bottles of sports drinks, including those turned out by leading producers, had been pulled from the market.

According to Tsai, FDA has advised food industry businesses to try and remain on top of their raw materials supplies and voluntarily submit their products for testing if they contain plasticizers sourced from Yu Shen.

Risk Assessment

Health authorities are neither exaggerating nor mincing words about the harmful effects of DEHP.

The risk of reproductive abnormality in an adult increases three to four times if he or she consumes a plasticizer-tainted beverage daily, and the risk could increase by up to eight times in young children, according to Kenneth K. Wu, president of National Health Research Institutes (NHRI), adding pregnant women are also more susceptible to the risk.

A bottle a week should not matter, there is no need to be overly concerned, Wu said in an interview.

The cancer-causing effects of DEHP have not been directly established, Wu said, adding that experiments with animals documented in the medical literature, however, do suggest that DEHP might cause liver cancer and leukemia.

According to Wu, NHRI has asked toxicologists to answer questions raised by concerned citizens and conduct long-term surveys.

On the other hand, in addition to its daily press releases, DOH has set up hotlines and a special information corner on its website to provide information about the plasticizer.

Furthermore, 23 clinics directly under the DOH are providing a consultation service, according to DOH Minister Chiu Wen-ta.