Watchdog knew of camellia oil danger

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 03 September, 2010, 12:00am

The initial denial of the cancer-causing properties of a Hunan company's camellia oil has been exacerbated by the fact that the provincial food safety watchdog knew but withheld information to the public because it feared a possible panic.

Jinhao Group, based in Changsha, issued an apology letter on Wednesday admitting it had twice secretly recalled 42 tonnes of substandard products after first denying the oil contained more than tolerable amounts of the cancerous substance benzoapyrene.

The group posted the letter of apology on its website saying that nine batches of its products made between December 3 and March 17 had the problem.

It said the company launched its first recall on March 20, during which about 11 tonnes of camellia seed oil, used for hair and skin care, were recalled from the market and more than 22 tonnes were sealed in the company's warehouse by the provincial food safety watchdog.

Fearing further safety problems, Jinhao launched a second round of recalls on April 22, targeting oil made in the same time period.

The letter, which did not say how much oil was recalled in April, asked that customers who still had oil from the original nine batches contact the company. It promised to buy back the oil or provide replacements.

But after Jinhao had reported the issue in March, the provincial food safety watchdog called a meeting in early July involving company representatives, officials of food safety departments at provincial and lower levels and food safety experts, according to the Century Weekly, a Beijing-based business magazine that first revealed the case late last month. At the meeting, some people suggested that the issue should not be released by the media.

A senior official of Hunan's Quality Supervision Department was quoted by the magazine as saying that 'to maintain social stability', the issue should not be made public.

Mainland media regarded the apology letter a success brought about by public pressure, as for nearly a month, both Jinhao and the Hunan food safety watchdog had either denied the accusations or tried to defend the company.

Southern Weekend, an outspoken Guangzhou-based weekly, reported yesterday that in an interview on August 19, an executive assistant from the president's office said Jinhao's oil had no quality problems and the accusations were just 'rumours started by competitors'.

The next day, Jinhao posted an announcement on its website denying rumours that its oil was found to cause cancer and promised all its products were safe and reliable.

On August 21, the Hunan food safety watchdog issued the result of its latest inspection of camellia seed oil makers, including Jinhao, claiming that all their products were qualified.

It was national media that pointed out that the samples provided by Jinhao for inspection were not those accused of being carcinogenic.

The incident marked the second time in two months that local authorities were found trying to cover up pollution or food safety problems for local companies using the excuse of maintaining social stability.

In August, a county official in Fujian was quoted by Southern Weekend as saying the Zijin Mining Group and provincial authorities chose not to reveal the true extent of pollution made in Shanghang county by Zijin's gold mine because it would scare the public.