Sales ban on food, drugs tainted by plasticizer

Updated: 2011-06-04 06:52

By Ming Yeung(HK Edition)

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Taiwan food scandal makes Hong Kong sit up and take note

The government has imposed a ban on selling foods and medicines containing in excess of trace amounts of industrial plasticizer DEHP.

Significantly, the announcement came a few days after the government had insisted that the existing law is good enough.

But things apparently have changed since a food scandal, the worst in more than a decade in Taiwan, came to light on May 23 when three types of sports drinks were removed from store shelves for containing DEHP, a potentially cancer-causing additive used in plastics.

Secretary for Food and Health York Chow had insisted two days earlier that such a ban was not necessary because only large intakes of DEHP over a long period of time would affect health.

However, Chow announced on Friday that selling any food or drugs containing "more than set amounts of DEHP" would be prohibited.

This followed the discovery of more contaminated food in Taiwan and on the Chinese mainland.

The government has now announced that the threshold would be set at level of 1.5 parts per million and food products will be regularly checked for DEHP through the Centre for Food Safety's routine surveillance system.

Chow also warned that the risk of food items contaminated with the chemical may persist.

The two firms in Taiwan, which added the chemical to the foods they produced, may have supplied to mainland factories, he added.

Chow denied claims of slow action in dealing with the situation, but said a zero-tolerance approach is impractical because a lot of plastic food containers may also contain DEHP.

Infectious disease expert Lo Wing-lok suggested the government has enough resources and manpower to make the checking system effective.

"Who would have expected that the problem would spread so quickly from sports drinks to all kinds of food products," Lo said.

The Expert Committee on Food Safety endorsed the government action.

"Food with a DEHP level exceeding 1.5 mg/kg may indicate food adulteration or a misuse of food packaging materials," said the committee Chairman Kwan Hoi-shan.

That's enough to safeguard public health, Kwan added. Even if one-third of the food that a 60-kg adult consumes is contaminated with the set level of DEHP, it will still be within safety guidelines set by the World Health Organization.

Chow admitted that the outbreak of EHEC, a brand new "super toxic" strain, in Germany is far more serious than DEHP.

He did not rule out the possibility that the outbreak will spread.

"The mortality rate in EHEC is higher than DEHP. The origin of the bacteria is unknown. We will keep an eye on the situation," Chow said.

He asked people to eat thoroughly cooked vegetables when traveling in Europe because the infection usually occurs because of contaminated food or water, and vegetables not washed properly.

The origin of the outbreak, which has killed at least 17 people so far, is still unknown.

Ten countries have reported cases of such infections, but all are said to be traced to northern Germany, where the outbreak began several weeks ago.

China Daily

(HK Edition 06/04/2011 page1)