TAIWAN - Taiwan's food manufacturing industry is reeling from a spate of discoveries of watered-down or fraudulent products ranging from cooking oil and soy sauce to bread and honey.
The scares have further dented consumer confidence, already hit by previous scandals.
In the latest case, Flavor Full and Tatung Chang Chi Foodstuffs, Taiwan's largest edible oil makers, are said to have passed off cheap cottonseed oil - which can cause infertility in men if consumed regularly - as more expensive oils including those made from sesame, peanut and olive. The probe was launched earlier this month following a tip-off.
Chang Chi, a 36-year-old firm, is said to have been adulterating its oils since 2007. Investigators say its rice wine and soy sauce products appear to have been diluted with artificial chemicals.
The discovery may have repercussions overseas. Flavor Full exports cottonseed oil to Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia, Canada and the Philippines; its exports to Singapore between 2011 and this year totalled 1,797.77 tonnes, according to Taiwan's Food and Drug Administration.
The Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore told The Straits Times that recent imports from Flavor Full had been withheld from distribution and sale, and samples taken for tests.
It noted that gossypol, the natural toxin in cottonseed oil, is usually removed in the refining process and the oil "will not pose any risk to consumers".
It said that in the past year, about 30 tonnes of Flavor Full brand sesame oil were imported, 97 per cent of which was repackaged for export and the rest sold at local trade fairs and stalls.
Chang Chi supplies nearly one-third of Taiwan's edible oil products, sold under the Tatung brand and found at supermarkets. It also supplies to schools, the military and a contract manufacturer of the government-run Taiwan Sugar Corp (Taisugar).
Retailers are clearing shelves of Chang Chi and Flavor Full products. The education ministry has ordered all 123 schools to stop using Tatung products, and Taisugar has recalled its grapeseed oil made by Chang Chi.
Only two months ago, bread- maker Top Pot Bakery was found to have used artificial flavourings in its "all-natural" products. In June, toxic starch was discovered in a wide variety of products including noodles and the tapioca balls used in "bubble tea" drinks.
In 2011, hundreds of beverage and health supplement products were found to be tainted with the industrial plasticiser DEHP.
The two scandals triggered recalls in Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and mainland China.
Accounts clerk Tsai Hsueh- ching, 60, said she and her husband are cooking their own meals instead of eating out. "Even the basics - rice, oil, soy sauce - are being faked or adulterated. How are ordinary folk supposed to live like this? Is the government monitoring food safety at all?"
The government is scrambling to restore confidence.
On Wednesday, Vice-Premier Mao Chi-kuo said at the Asia-Pacific conference of the International Association for Food Protection, held in Taipei, that the government would soon launch a comprehensive cross-ministry food safety inspection programme.
Prosecutors are seeking record fines for Chang Chi and Flavor Full of NT$1.85 billion (S$78 million) and NT$460 million respectively, the same amounts they are estimated to have gained from their fraudulent practices.
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