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Wall Street Journal Article
Unsafe Food Additives
Across Asia Feed Fears
Toxic Dyes and Preservatives Are Often Key
Export Worries Widen
May 9, 2007; Page B1
HONG KONG -- Formaldehyde, which has been linked
to cancer, has legitimate uses in adhesives and
embalming. But in Indonesia, Sutikno, a 35-year-old
tofu maker in south Jakarta who goes by one name,
uses it to keep the tofu he sells fresh.
"Formaldehyde is magic. There is no comparison," he
said on a recent afternoon at the market. Last year,
he switched briefly to a legal preservative, but his
bean curd went bad in less than 24 hours. As for his
customers, he doesn't tell them he uses
formaldehyde. "There is no complaint," Mr. Sutikno
Across Asia, small-scale food manufacturers and
street vendors often boost profits by using cheap
but toxic chemicals as sweeteners, dyes and
preservatives. While the most egregious examples
generally involve food for local consumption,
dangerous additives occasionally end up in foods
exported to the U.S. and other Western countries,
highlighting the scope of the problems regulators
[A January rally in Jakarta protested the use of
formaldehyde in foods.]
"Human ignorance as well as greed knows no
bounds," says Gerald Moy, manager of the World
Health Organization's office that monitors chemicals
in the global food supply.
The pet-food contamination that killed and sickened
cats and dogs in the U.S. has called into question
the safety of imports from China. Yesterday China's
General Administration of Quality Supervision,
Inspection and Quarantine said on its Web site that
Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development Co.
and Binzhou Futian Biology Technology Co. exported
the toxic ingredients which contained melamine, a
chemical used in fire retardants. The companies
weren't available to comment this morning.
Separately, U.S. Food and Drug Administration
officials yesterday said they found melamine in
Canadian-manufactured fish meal containing what was
labeled as wheat gluten imported from China. The
officials said they are looking at fish meal
imported not only from China but also from other
countries. Melamine-contaminated ingredients found
in pet foods were actually wheat flour, rather than
wheat gluten or rice protein concentrate as labels
indicated, the officials added.
The FDA has the authority to inspect food shipments,
but because of the sheer volume of imports, only a
fraction of food entering the country is inspected.
"Our focus is based on where we know the risks are,"
David Acheson, the FDA's assistant commissioner for
food protection, said in an interview. "It's not a
strategy to test everything that arrives at the
ports." But the FDA says it is rethinking its
strategic approach to targeting potential risks and
allocating resources. It is also working with the
Chinese watchdog group to search for long-term
solutions, Mr. Acheson said.
With the discovery of melamine in animal food, the
agency is considering a new safety system for animal
feed that would go beyond the current focus on
preventing mad-cow disease and salmonella.
In Asia, unsafe additives in foods for human
consumption have long been a problem. Some street
vendors use an industrial dye for textiles called
Sudan Red to make their coconut and sugar-cane
drinks look more attractive. "You could just see
the beverages, they sort of glow, because these dyes
are really quite intense," says the WHO's Mr. Moy.
Last November, Chinese authorities discovered that
poultry farmers in Hebei province had been using one
of the Sudan Red dyes, believed to cause cancer, to
color the feed of their ducks and redden the yolks
of the eggs, which sell at a premium price.
[Taste Test Graphic]
In 2003, Sudan Red was found in hot-chili products
imported from India to the U.K. Products containing
the dye were also recalled in Canada and South
Africa. Over the next two years, the contamination
snowballed. By March 2005, 580 products had been
withdrawn in the U.K.
In March this year, the FDA stopped 215 shipments
from mainland China for a variety of problems.
One shipment of dried dates was considered filthy;
plums contained unsafe sweeteners; and oranges had
pesticide residues. A few dozen also had unsafe
color additives. But there is often a disconnect
between what regulators charge and companies
respond. One of the shipments the FDA refused was
apple chips from Hebei Dongfang Green Tree Food Co.
in China, which may have contained unsafe color
Pan Yanjun, the company's vice president, confirmed
in a telephone interview yesterday that his company
shipped some apple chips to the U.S. in March for a
natural food show, but said that the FDA approved
the shipment. "We never dye the apple chips," he
There is little evidence that foods contaminated by
unsafe preservatives are being shipped abroad. But
unauthorized use is widespread in Asia.
Formaldehyde, for instance, is often used as a
preservative in Asia and other parts of the world
where refrigeration is scarce. In late 2005, the
Indonesian National Agency for Drug and Food Control
tested 161 samples of fish, shrimp, squid, tofu, and
noodles produced and sold across six cities and
found that 64 of the samples tested positive for
Another problem is a group of chemicals called
borates, including boric acid. Borates were widely
used in food products in the U.S. and other
countries a century ago to improve the texture of
food as well as preserve it. Most countries today
prohibit its use as a food additive because it is
toxic at high levels. Now, the chemical is mainly
used in insecticides, flame retardants and cleaning
In March and April of 2006, the Malaysian Health
Ministry tested 387 samples of rice noodles, 20 of
which were found to contain boric acid, according to
Dr. Abdul Rahim Mohamad, the director of the food
safety and quality division within Malaysia's Health
In Thailand, Peerapong Suksaweng, an official with
the country's Food and Drug Administration, runs
spot checks on street vendors, supermarkets and
farmers' markets. Each day, his mobile inspection
unit -- one of 26 throughout the country -- checks
produce for insecticides and chemical additives such
as borates and formaldehyde.
He has found street vendors who have added
borates to minced pork and meatballs to keep them
fresh. In high quantities, Mr. Peerapong says,
"people who eat [that] could vomit blood or die."
--Jane Zhang in Washington; Puspa Madani in Jakarta,
Indonesia; Wilawan Watcharasakwet in Bangkok,
Thailand; Celine Fernandez in Kuala Lumpur; and
Kersten Zhang and Zhou Yang in Beijing contributed
to this article.
Write to Nicholas Zamiska at