CHANGSHA - Local health authorities have admitted waiting five months before announcing that secret recalls had been ordered for a brand of camellia oil that had been found to contain excessive carcinogens.
The oil was manufactured by Jinhao, a well-known edible oil maker based in Central China's Hunan province.
An official with the provincial bureau of quality and technical supervision confirmed, on the condition of anonymity, that in March, the bureau found excessive amounts of a harmful element known as benzoapyrene in a sample of Jinhao camellia oil.
Benzoapyrene is highly carcinogenic and will accumulate within the human body, causing long-term health problems, according to health experts.
The official also said that the high levels of benzoapyrene resulted from the processing of the oil. He added that the company has resolved the issue by updating its equipment.
The Beijing News quoted local quality supervision officials as saying on Thursday that they did not release the information in order to "maintain social stability."
The Hunan Jinhao Camellia Oil Co Ltd published an apology letter on its website on Wednesday evening to inform the consumers of the substandard products.
"Nine batches of camellia oil produced from December last year to this March have been found to contain excessive benzoapyrene," the letter stated.
The unsafe products totaled 42 tons. Some 22 tons have been seized by the local quality supervision authorities and 11 tons have been recalled, according to the letter.
Authorities did not say what happened to the other nine tons.
The contact number listed at the end of the letter remained busy throughout the day Thursday, so further comment was not available.
The letter noted the company had conducted two recalls separately in late March and April.
The company admitted in the Wednesday letter that it "didn't inform the public about the substandard products in time and didn't inform people thoroughly about the recall process."
The issue started grabbing public attention in early August, when posts appeared on the Internet saying, "The Jinhao camellia oil has been tested to contain a cancer-causing substance."
On Aug 20, the company published an announcement on its website, guaranteeing the safety of its products and saying its competitors might have deliberately spread the rumors.
The next day, the Hunan quality supervision bureau posted an announcement in a local newspaper, saying they had tested random samples of the Jinhao oil and the results showed no problems.
The Century Weekly, a Chinese magazine, reported on Monday that Jinhao twice recalled the problematic oil without informing consumers or the media.
The benzoapyrene level in the recalled oil, according to the report, was 60 micrograms per kg, five times the national limits.
Jinhao, however, refused to publicly release information about the recalled batch or the quantity of products that had been recalled, the magazine said.
Public opinion boiled over soon after the media report, with angry netizens decrying the cover-up and others worrying about camellia oil they had consumed.
"I bought the camellia oil as a luxury, now I have to discard it like trash. They didn't even tell me whether it is in the recalled batch or not," said a netizen "tittle-tattle".
A bottle of 5L Jinhao camellia oil sells for about 330 yuan ($49), roughly four times the price of normal peanut oil, making it an expensive item for average families.
Wu Jingming, professor from China University of Political Science and Law, commented that local authorities reacted quickly to urge the recall of the problematic oil, but blundered in trying to hide the truth from the public.
Sang Liwei, a Beijing-based food safety lawyer and the Beijing chief representative of the nonprofit Global Food Safety Forum, said the issue revealed problems in making public the information on food safety.
"Both the company and government bodies are obligated to inform consumers about unsafe goods and the ongoing recall process, but in real life, this sometimes doesn't happen, or happens late," Sang said.
One reason is regional protectionism, where officials are often reluctant to release negative information about big local companies, he said, adding the same thing had happened during the beginning period of the melamine-tainted milk scandal in 2008.
"Non-transparent food safety information is the protection and connivance for food safety crimes," Sang added.
Camellia oil, acclaimed for its high nutritional value, has gained popularity in many regions of China. Hunan province provides nearly half of all camellia oil sold in China, with Jinhao being one of the leading camellia oil producers.
Jinhao has six production bases in Hunan, with an annual revenue of 1.1 billion yuan. Company leaders planned to list the company publicly before 2012.