FOCUS ON CHINESE-CANADIAN COMMUNITY
TAIWANESE BEVERAGE RECALL SCARE
BY GABRIELLA WONG
CANADA prides itself on tight regulations of its international imports to ensure that products that enter the country are of top quality. Recently there have been concerns in the Chinese-Canadian community about some food products from Taiwan which ordered a recall of many of its plastic-packaged beverages and foods because of the cancer-causing substance called DEHP (di-ethyl hexyl phthalate). Over the long term, DEHP can cause problems in the male reproductive systems, including development of defective sperm. Ongoing investigations are looking into how long the plastics have been contaminated with DEHP and to what extent.
Taiwan took the initiative to disclose the details about which food brands have been affected. The Taiwanese government took strict measures to pull the products off the shelves. Grocery stores and wholesalers across Hong Kong and China that carry popular Taiwanese delicacies have been frantic in their reaction to the recall. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has been dealing calmly with the matter, ordering the immediate recall of six fruit juice and jam products to date. Kuo Hua Trading Company located on Richmond’s busy No. 3 Road is the main distributor in Canada for Taiwanese foods. Hotels, restaurants and grocery stores deal with Kuo Hua, which is itself a popular retail store, for famous imported products. Taiwanese-owned companies pride themselves in their creative and popular food products such as teas and fruity beverages. But with their national brands tainted with this contamination issue, entrepreneurs are desperately trying to save their reputation.
One of the most popular and successful Taiwanese delights is bubble tea. This beverage that comes in a variety of flavours is a familiar one, with signature tapioca pearls sucked out with a colourful thick straw. It has been a favourite for Asians and non-Asians alike, having numerous businesses start-ups in Canada dedicated to it. The bubble tea culture has transcended cultures and generation gaps, making it the socializing alternative to “let’s grab a coffee together.”
Bubble tea has received criticism on its high-carb count. Each regular-sized cup packs the energy of one and a half bowls of white rice. It’s not the most nutritious thing indeed. But perhaps the scarier fact about the much loved beverage is that the plastic cups used specially for bubble tea may contain DEHP. This is still under investigation, but the suspicion is enough to unnerve consumers.
There also has been an extension of the issue that has attracted the American FDA (Food and Drug Administration) to clarify some facts. Medical bags used in hospitals to carry medications or saline have been rumoured to contain DEHP as well. These PVC (polyvinyl chloride) bags are added with DEHP to soften it, making it more flexible and useful. The concern is the risk of the substance leaching out of the bags and getting directly injected into patients. The FDA has clarified that DEHP has shown to be causing reproductive defects only in animal tests. Any threat to humans has not been found yet.
The DEHP scare has been the largest scale product recall in Taiwanese history. Canadians who bought such products have already phoned in to Kuo Hua for refunds. T&T Supermarkets do not carry such products but have pulled everything of the same brand off their shelves just to be on the safe side. Canadian chemists and doctors have been trying to demystify the issue, telling consumers there is no need to shift into panic mode. Information from professionals is much needed to help educate the public.
As consumers, our role is to discern between facts and rumour. Think about who you hear it from, and how credible their source of information is. I found that Taiwanese companies both local and abroad have made a reasonable effort to limit the spread of DEHP-contaminated products. This large recall has not only made the reputation of Taiwanese goods plummet, but has also cast another shadow on Asian food safety standards. Comments on online English newspaper articles about this issue demonstrate the general stereotype that Asian countries have unclear regulations for their products. Blowing the story out of all proportion does not help innocent Asian food companies gain back customer confidence.
Gabriella Wong is a Canadian-born Chinese studying at the University of British Columbia, and President of the Awareness for WWII in Asia Club. She writes a bi-weekly column for Asian Journal.