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Taiwan finds banned Sudan Red dye in chili powder from China

China flag. (Unsplash)
March 07, 2024

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Authorities in democratic Taiwan are scrambling to test food products containing chili powder from China for the banned food coloring Sudan Red, after recalling and sealing more than 20,000 kilograms of foodstuffs, including those sold in the popular Haidilao chain of hotpot stores, officials said.

Authorities in Taoyuan city discovered the potentially carcinogenic substance in chili that was subsequently used to make hotpot flavoring and spicy rice noodles by Haidilao, a popular hotpot chain with outlets around the world, officials told the island’s lawmakers on Monday.

But fresh reports of contaminated products continued to roll in on Tuesday, with restaurant chain Bafang Dumpling and instant noodle maker Wei Lih Foods both saying they had bought chili powder tainted with Sudan Red, which is banned in many countries as a likely carcinogen. 

Bombarded by questions in the Legislative Yuan on Monday, Taiwanese Health and Welfare Minister Hsueh Jui-yuan said the government is reinspecting foods containing China-sourced chili, after tainted chili powder was found in several food products across the island.

The ministry has stalled inspections of fresh imports from 21 Chinese exporters and manufacturers and stepped up batch inspections, with Sudan Red found in nine batches out of the 59 officials had inspected by Monday, Hsueh said in comments reported by the United Daily News.

Sudan Red has been banned by various food regulatory bodies worldwide , while European member states carry out mandatory testing for the substance in all products containing powdered chili pepper. It is considered “very likely” to cause cancer by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

Health officials will continue to carry out checks and ensure that any other products containing tainted chili powder are recalled, Hsueh said.

Tracing the source

The scandal emerged on Sunday, when health officials in Taoyuan city said they had found chili powder tainted with Sudan III at six different businesses, including Haidilao, which used the tainted powder in products sold at 16 branches across Taiwan. Some 900 kilograms (1,985 pounds) of Haidilao products have now been recalled, the Taiwan News reported.

Officials traced the source of the tainted powder to Chinese suppliers Jinzhan International and Jiaguang International, but blamed Taiwanese food importer Bao Hsin Enterprises for distributing the chili powder to companies despite being aware that it was substandard. Police detained Bao Hsin staff members and its chief executive Liu Ching-shih, and fined the company for violating food sanitation regulations, the China Times newspaper reported.

National Taiwan University professor Wu Kun-yu said Taiwan’s health regulations list 796 permitted food additives. Anything not on the list is banned.

“Additives that aren’t listed can’t be used, and illegal additives will be recalled,” Wu said, blaming “administrative laziness” for the failure to detect the substance sooner.

Haidilao has said it has removed all affected products from sale, and denied any direct business dealings with the suppliers.

The company said it will conduct its own investigations into its supply chain, and actively cooperate with health officials in their investigations.

Public health scandals

Chinese companies have been embroiled in a string of public health scandals affecting foodstuffs in recent years, including other incidents involving Sudan Red in foods, melamine-tainted infant formula milk, used “gutter” cooking oil and cadmium-tainted rice.

A businessman from the eastern Chinese province of Jiangsu, who gave only the surname Ji for fear of reprisals, said Sudan Red and other banned food additives were detected in salted duck eggs in China between 2000 and 2008.

“There is a huge problem with food safety in China,” Ji said. “[They think] as long as you don’t drop dead after eating it, then it’s fine.”

Jiangsu-based current affairs commentator Zhang Jianping said Chinese officials are less likely to be exposed to toxic foodstuffs, because they have a special food supply chain that has been subjected to stringent safety checks, known as the “tegong” system.

“People at the top of the pyramid enjoy access to the special food supply, so they’re not exposed to these hazards,” Zhang said. “So officials aren’t that concerned about tainted food, and don’t pay much attention to food additives.”

“This is a systemic problem that will only get resolved if they cancel the special food supply for officials,” he said.