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December 3, 2009

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Food officials do U-turn on arsenic levels

THE credibility of food authorities in a southern Chinese city is under intense scrutiny after they yesterday did an amazing about-face over their call on the quality of three popular domestic beverages.

The Haikou Municipal Bureau of Industry and Commerce in Hainan Province issued a statement late on Tuesday night admitting that products of Nongfu Spring Co and Uni-President Co had been cleared of its earlier charges that they contained high levels of arsenic.

It cited further testing performed by the Chinese Academy of Inspection and Quarantine for its U-turn.

The bureau said it had notified retailers that the products should not be recalled after the final results by the national testing center were released.

The abrupt retraction came a week after the bureau said Nongfu Spring's 30 percent mixed vegetable and fruit juice and its C-100 grapefruit juice, as well as the peach beverage of Uni-President, contained excessive arsenic.

The results were based on a report from the Hainan Entry-Exit Inspection and Quarantine Bureau.

Nongfu Spring and Uni-President doubted the results and appealed to the national laboratory for a retest on November 28, which declared their products to be safe.

"I was totally confused about contrary results released by Haikou authorities," said housewife Chen Fang.

Zhong Shanshan, chairman of Nongfu Spring, questioned how the case was handled.

The Haikou bureau has not specified why the results came out so differently.

It has also kept silent on who, if anyone, should take responsibility for the fiasco.

The provincial health department yesterday admitted that the Haikou bureau had "errors in its procedures," Xinhua news agency reported.

"The scandal not only triggered distrust against the companies but also led to questions on government credibility," Netizen Zhu Wenqing wrote on a blog.

An official from Uni-President parent company President Enterprises (China) Investment Co, which suffered severe image and bottom-line fallout, told Shanghai Daily yesterday the firm had not been approached by the Haikou industry and commerce bureau.

"We hope the food authority will issue a clarification so we can win back consumer trust," said the official, who requested anonymity.

Zhong said Nongfu Spring was considering a compensation case against the provincial authorities after losing 1 billion yuan (US$147 million) due to the scandal.

According to Ye Zhijian, an attorney for Nongfu Spring, national regulations stipulate that sampling and tests must be witnessed by three parties: industry and commerce authorities, the producer and the lab in charge of the test.

He said Nongfu Spring representatives were not present when the Haikou tests took place and after the result came out, the company applied twice to the Haikou bureau but received no definite reply.

Xinhua quoted Zhong as saying that the entire test procedure was "not acceptable and full of loopholes."


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