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Q&A/Taiwan's tainted chili powder problem in detail

03/11/2024 08:31 PM
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Kaohsiung City government workers seal boxes of goods produced with Sundan dyes-contaminated products in this photo released on Monday. Photo courtesy of Kaohsiung City Department of Health March 11, 2024
Kaohsiung City government workers seal boxes of goods produced with Sundan dyes-contaminated products in this photo released on Monday. Photo courtesy of Kaohsiung City Department of Health March 11, 2024

Taipei, March 11 (CNA) Taiwan is facing a food safety problem involving the presence of "Sudan dyes" -- red synthetic chemical dyes banned in Taiwan for use in foodstuffs -- in chili powder imported from China. CNA has compiled answers to some frequently asked questions about the issue.

What are Sudan dyes, and why are they added to chili powder?

Sudan dyes are a group of industrial dyes consisting of several red colors -- Sudan I, II, III, and IV -- which are listed as toxic chemical substances by the Ministry of Environment's Chemicals Administration.

According to the Changhua County Public Health Bureau, the natural pigments in chili powder can fade due to environmental factors such as high temperatures and pH levels. Some businesses may illegally use Sudan dyes to enhance the brightness, uniformity, and longevity of the product's color.

How did the tainted chili powder case come to light?

On Feb. 7, the Yunlin Public Health Bureau reported finding in late January that a brand of chili powder produced by a food manufacturer within the county's jurisdiction contained 18 parts per billion (ppb) of Sudan III.

Subsequent probes by Taiwan's Food and Drug Administration (TFDA) and local health authorities revealed that the raw materials for the contaminated red chili powder were imported by New Taipei-based Bao Hsin Enterprises Co., Ltd. (Bao Hsin) from Henan Sanhe Pharmaceutical Co., Ltd. (Sanhe) in China.

What have the central and local governments done after the initial finding?

From Feb. 9 to Feb. 23, local health authorities in New Taipei, Taoyuan, and Taichung found four shipments of chili powder imported from Sanhe by Bao Hsin were contaminated with Sudan dyes.

From Feb. 21 to March 8, TFDA and local health authorities tested the 59 shipments of chili powder imported from China into Taiwan prior to Dec. 11, 2023, and 14 showed the presence of Sudan dyes while 45 did not.

Prior to Dec. 11, shipments were only tested on a random basis and needed to be retested once the problem emerged, but after Dec. 11 chili powder imported from China was subject to 100 percent shipment-by-shipment inspections at the border.

The 59 shipments tested were imported from 21 Chinese exporters and manufacturers who were subsequently barred on Feb. 20 from shipping their products to Taiwan for three months due to violations of regulations, such as the presence of Sudan dyes or pesticides in those items.

Additionally, on March 7, the Tainan Public Health Bureau reported that a shipment of chili flakes and chili seeds, raw ingredients used in the production of chili powder by a food manufacturer in the southern city, was found to test positive for Sudan dyes.

As of March 8, the total number of shipments with tainted chili powder was 19 -- 14 of the 59 shipped prior to Dec. 11, four by the local health authorities, and the shipment that tested positive for Sudan dyes in Tainan.

Which companies are involved, and what food products were contaminated by the tainted chili powder?

Of the 19 shipments that tested positive for Sudan dyes, Bao Hsin imported 10 of them, Chia Guang International Co., Ltd. and Gin Zhan International Co., Ltd. (registered at the same address in Kaohsiung) combined to import eight, and Great Agar Enterprise Co., Ltd. in Tainan imported the remaining one, according to the TFDA.

The discovery of the tainted chili powder across different shipments led to recalls of the powder itself and products made with it.

As of March 8, a total of 152,072.8 kilograms of chili powder and consumer products it was used in had been recalled from the four importing companies and the food processors they sold the powder to, according to TFDA data.

The food products that have recalled and seized across the country in the past month include popular spicy shrimp chips called "Hsia Wei Hsien" and more than 50 seasoning items and curry powder under different brands.

A section has been set up on the front page of the TFDA website that discloses information on the situation, such as the companies that imported the contaminated chili powder and details on the related food products that have been recalled.

What should I do if I consume food products with Sudan dyes?

Su Chia-hua (蘇嘉華), a dietitian at the Ministry of Health and Welfare's Lo-Sheng Sanatorium and Hospital, told CNA that Sudan dyes have been classified as a Group 3 carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, indicating that there is insufficient research evidence to determine whether Sudan dyes are carcinogenic to humans.

An excessive intake of Sudan red, however, can harm the liver and kidneys and cause skin allergies, but significant toxicity to these organs is likely to occur only with prolonged, high-dose consumption, Su said.

As Sudan dyes are metabolized before being excreted through the intestines, Su suggested that consuming broccoli, a vegetable rich in phytochemicals, seasonal fruits rich in vitamin C, and nuts rich in vitamin E, can assist in liver metabolism of the chemical substance.

Probiotics can also aid in the breakdown of Sudan dyes, Su added.

How to avoid consuming products with Sudan dyes?

Sudan dyes are oil-based substances, and their red color persists even when heated, said TFDA Deputy Director-General Lin Chin-fu (林金富) in a press conference on March 6.

"When you see the colors [of foods] that seem to be abnormal, it is advisable not to make a purchase. If a product appears to be too white, it may have added bleach; similarly, if a product looks too red, there's a chance that Sudan dye has been added," Lin said.

The Changhua County Public Health Bureau said chili powder containing Sudan dyes has a slightly pungent odor and comes in a vivid color that can stain one's hands, and it advised against the purchase of very cheap or unnaturally colored chili powder.

Have any preventive measures been implemented?

All cities and counties in Taiwan have announced temporary bans on the use of chili and curry powder in school lunches starting from March 7, but 12 local governments did not set an end date for the bans.

A number of cities and counties, including Taipei, New Taipei, Taoyuan, Taichung, Tainan, and Kaohsiung, have also requested that hospitals and long-term care institutions within their jurisdictions cease using chili and curry powder in the meals they provide.

On March 8, TFDA announced that all imported chili powder, whether from China or other countries, will be subject to 100 percent shipment-by-shipment inspections at the border with immediate effect.

Over the next month, the TFDA, local health bureaus, and the police will conduct random inspections at 29 local businesses that have imported Chinese chili powder over the past three years, according to the TFDA.

In addition, Health Minister Hsueh Jui-yuan (薛瑞元) said on March 10 that the three-month ban on imports from the 21 Chinese exporters and manufacturers that started Feb. 20 could be extended or made permanent, depending on circumstances.

(By Sunny Lai)

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