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January 7, 2010

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Arsenic-scandal culprit revealed

MALFUNCTIONING test instrumentation was yesterday blamed for a beverage arsenic scandal in southern China that brought the credibility of food-safety authorities under intense scrutiny.

A statement issued by the Industry and Commerce Administration in Hainan Province said a 21-day investigation had cleared both Nongfu Spring Co and Uni-President Co, the leading beverage producers in China, of charges that their products contained unacceptably high levels of arsenic.

Huang Chengmo, head of the administration, said the inquiry team quizzed testers and the two companies.

Huang said they found wrong test results were caused by old and "less sensitive" testing instruments.

The administration said nobody should be held responsible for the scandal as it was "a mere mechanical error."

It apologized to the two companies for the damage caused to their reputations.

Yang Shouzheng, a senior official with President Enterprises (China) Investment Co, Uni-President's parent, said yesterday the firm felt happy about the government response.

Netizens dubious

"We won't take legal action," he told Shanghai Daily.

Officials from Nongfu Spring were not available for comment yesterday.

The Haikou Bureau of Industry and Commerce issued a statement on November 23 warning that several products of Nongfu Spring and Uni-President contained high levels of arsenic.

The bureau sent the warning to local newspapers and ordered the removal of these products from retail shelves.

The bureau did an amazing about-face just a week after the warning was issued, claiming the products were all found to be safe after a second set of tests.

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

Many Netizens were skeptical and accused authorities of blaming machines to cover inefficiency.

One Netizen questioned how a less-sensitive instrument detected high levels of the poisonous chemical, while a normal one did not.

Others doubted that a machine could detect arsenic when it did not exist.


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