Harmful rare earth found in Lipton tea samples

Updated: 2011-11-11 07:55

By Zhou Wenting (China Daily)

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BEIJING - The consumer product giant Unilever said on Thursday that it had recalled and destroyed a batch of Lipton tea bags - one of its branded products - in response to the charge that they contained impurities. It said the product was taken off shelves in August, after an official spot check found it contained excessive residues from heavy metals.

"We recalled and destroyed all the products of that batch in August," Unilever said in a statement sent to China Daily. The company received a disqualification notice from the country's top quality watchdog on Aug 5.

"We also screened other products and raw materials, and haven't found other batches with the same problem," reads the statement.

The General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine published the result of a national spot check scanning 37 types of products, including food, agricultural and industrial production materials, on its website on Wednesday. The inspection of tea, which started in July, found 19 of the 58 product samples failed the national standard, especially for the residual amount of rare earth they contained.

Doctors said the substance can keep steadily accumulating in the human body, and that an excessive accumulation is likely to cause health problems.

"Experiments conducted on animals have suggested that an excessive intake of rare earth may trigger liver and bone damage," said Tan Guijun, deputy head of the nutrition department at Tianjin First Center Hospital.

The list of substandard products showed the measured value of rare earth in a Lipton tea sample - Tieguanyin tea produced on Jan 14, 2011, in Anhui province - was 3.4 milligrams for each kg. The national standard permits a maximum amount of 2.0.

The company denied the substance was artificially added.

"The rare earth comes from the soil where the tea grows. There is no possibility that it is added or generated automatically in the production and processing process," reads the company's statement.

But certain experts on fake goods in China said they believed Unilever could be lying.

"Rare earth elements are added as foliar fertilizer at the time of planting the saplings, to enable plants to combat drought and flood," said Fang Zhouzi, a famous Chinese blogger known for his efforts towards exposing academic fraud, in his micro blog on Thursday.

Agricultural experts also said that rare earth is a soluble salt compound, which can promote the growth of tea leaves.

The company in September sent some samples for a third-party test. The test report sent to China Daily shows the samples meet the standard in all 15 indicators, and the measured value of rare earth is 1.8.

"Now all Lipton's Tieguanyin tea products are in line with national standards," said Zheng Tianhui, a communication officer at Unilever China.

Wang Chenshuang, a regular consumer of Lipton tea bags, said she felt depressed on hearing that the international brand failed to meet the standard in China.

"But I think the Chinese quality watchdog should also be held responsible. Foreign brands can show integrity in other countries, but keep collapsing, leading to scandals, in China," said the 24-year-old Chongqing resident, suggesting Chinese inspectors should think seriously about why food safety scandals occur so often in the country.

Wal-Mart, another retailing magnate, also found itself entangled in a food quality row in Guangdong.

Guangdong commercial authorities recently conducted an inspection of cooked food in big supermarkets in Foshan and Zhongshan cities, and only 62 percent of the foods checked met standards.

In a statement to China Daily, Wal-Mart said the cooked foods that fell short on quality have been removed from the shelves in its China stores.

"We have also canceled cooperation with suppliers of the problematic food," said a representative of Wal-Mart China's public relation department, who declined to be named.

Qiu Quanlin contributed to this story.