By Ngoc Nguyen, Vivian Po, Summer Chiang
New America Media
SAN FRANCISCO – More than three weeks after the Taiwanese government began a massive recall of tainted food products, the United States government has provided no guidance to retailers as to which products are safe to sell. By contrast, the Philippines, Canada and New Zealand have published the names of specific Taiwanese food products in their countries believed to be contaminated.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has compiled a list of 52 products known to be contaminated that were shipped to the United States, based on information provided by Taiwanese health officials, agency spokesman Douglas Karas said this week. But the FDA has yet to determine whether it will release that list to the public, Karas said.
The recall has involved hundreds of companies that bought tainted ingredients from at least two manufacturers. The companies used the plasticizer DEHP, one of a group of chemicals called phthalates, as a “clouding” agent in place of more expensive palm oil, according to the Taipei Times.
According to Karas, the contaminated products that entered the U.S. were primarily fruit juices, syrups and jams manufactured by Possmei International Co. Ltd., Seven Strong Co. Ltd., Dashing Industrial Co. Ltd., Patio Master International Co. Ltd., Tasty Enterprise Company, Jin Ji Wang Food Co. Ltd. and Mao-Hon International Foods Material Corp.
Karas says the FDA is testing products “to generate data upon which to make our own regulatory decisions,” including guidance to businesses and the public.
“Certainly, the fact that we don’t even know what products have been contaminated is a concern,” said Erik Olson, director of food programs for the Pew Health Group based in Washington, D.C.
Patty Lovera, assistant director of the Washington-based advocacy group Food and Water Watch, called the FDA’s response to the recall “very quiet.”
“It doesn’t seem like they are putting the word out. They are leaving it to retailers to do it,” she said.
Food safety experts said they would have expected a more proactive response from the FDA because Congress overhauled the agency in January, boosting its enforcement and inspection powers both domestically and abroad.
“The FDA has been in a responsive mode, not in prevention mode,” Lovera said.
The urgency of the FDA’s response depends on the health risk of each event, Karas said, and the Taiwanese recall “is not an immediate health risk.”
Karas said that the FDA does not believe short-term exposure to foods containing DEHP would cause acute health effects, but that tests in animals suggest long-term exposure to contaminated foods could cause cancer and changes in the endocrine system.
There is growing concern about the health effects of phthalates, Olson of the Pew Health Group said, noting that Congress recently banned the chemicals in children’s products because of the risks they pose to kids.
“The highest risk tends to be during vulnerable stages of life, during pregnancy and key stages of development for a young child,” Olson said.
In the absence of instructions from the federal government, a number of restaurants, food sellers and distributors have taken steps on their own to ensure food safety.
WaLong Marketing, a wholesaler and distributor of Asian products to more than 1,000 stories in the United States, and 99 Ranch, one of the largest Asian supermarket chains in California, last month voluntarily recalled the Song-Yi brand of concentrated juices in a variety of tropical fruit flavors and the Tradition brand of Plum Green Tea because of suspected contamination with DEHP.
“Right now, we haven’t received any notice from the FDA,” said Teddy Huang, marketing manager for WaLong, based in Buena Park, Calif. “Currently, we all depend on the Taiwan government for news of any products contaminated with DEHP, and we will do the recall by ourselves.”
99 Ranch recalled Sau Tao instant noodles in dried scallop flavor after plasticizers were found in the flavoring packets of the noodles, said Teddy Chow, 99 Ranch’s acting vice president for marketing.
More than half of the products that 99 Ranch sells come from Taiwan, Chow said, so the company has been working closely with its distributors to ensure food safety.
The Taiwanese government has ordered the makers of several categories of products, including sports drinks, juices, tea drinks, fruit jams and syrups, to certify the safety of their goods. As a result, Chow said, Taiwanese manufacturers have hired independent, third-party labs to test their products.
“The wholesalers have been very cooperative and responsible. Most of them provided us with certificates voluntarily or upon our requests, ” Chow said, adding that that 99 Ranch has put up recall notices in its 37 stores nationwide, mostly in California.
The World Journal interviewed one worker at a Bay Area tea shop who said the store had stopped selling passion fruit, mango and lychee flavors of bubble tea after receiving notice from Taiwan.
Wexiong Lee, owner of the L’epi D’or Bakery in Cupertino, told the World Journal he had received half a dozen inquires from customers who were worried about bakery goods filled with jellies and jams, which are among the tainted products in Taiwan. Although he sells some Taiwan-based products, he told the newspaper he had checked with the suppliers to make sure all of the products the bakery sells are safe.
Ton Hua, store manager of the Wing-Wa Supermarket in Sacramento, told New America Media he relies on his wholesalers to inform him about product recalls.
“We haven’t heard from the FDA,” he said. “If the FDA says it is bad, we’ll call the wholesaler to verify, and then pull it off the shelves. We don’t want to do the wrong thing.”