In the Hong Kong Supermarket on Hester Street in Manhattan, Elisa Kao was scrutinizing the labels on cans of shashajiang (沙茶醬) the way a forensic scientist examines sets of fingerprints. Hardly an unusual sight in Chinatown, Kao was doing what many Asian-Americans have done for years whenever they shop at Chinese supermarkets in the US — she was searching for recognizable brands made in Taiwan.
But this time, it was for a different reason.
“Now, who knows what’s safe to eat,” Kao said. “Maybe I should start looking for ‘made in China’ instead.”
For decades, three simple words — Made in Taiwan — stamped on canned and packaged food items sold in Chinese supermarkets in the US conveyed a guarantee of quality and excellence. But in the wake of Taiwan’s widening food scandal, Chinese and Taiwanese-Americans living in New York, home to the largest overseas Chinese population in the US, say they are thinking twice about what they put in their carts.
“In the past, I used to buy Taiwan, but after the recent news reports came out, I’m a little scared,” said one customer, surnamed Hsu (許), who was searching for chili paste at Jmart, an Asian-specialty supermarket in Flushing, New York. “Now I’m buying Korean and Japanese items instead.”
Two weeks ago, the Wu Mu (五木) brand of steamed spinach ramen noodles, manufactured by Sing-Lin Foods Corporation (興霖), was the latest addition to the growing list of made-in-Taiwan products implicated in the country’s widening food safety scandal. After testing positive for sodium copper chlorophyllin, a coloring agent permitted in food items like gum and dried seaweed but not in noodles, Wu Mu’s spinach-flavored ramen was pulled from shelves at Jmart and the Hong Kong Supermarket, two of New York’s most popular Asian-specialty superstores, cashiers and employees said.
At Jmart, other flavors of Wu Mu ramen, including pickled mustard (雲林榨菜拉麵) and steamed mushrooms (香菇拉麵) reduced to US$1.99 a package, remained on shelves since they were not affected, workers said. Managers from Jmart, the Hong Kong Supermarket and the Great Wall Supermarket, another popular chain in New York, did not return phone calls and e-mails seeking comment about whether customers could get a refund for previously-purchased Wu Mu noodles, or other items linked to the food scandal, and what they planned to do with any returned merchandise.
No recall, yet
As of Tuesday, the US Food and Drug Administration (US FDA) had not issued any recalls for Wu Mu noodles or other items linked to Taiwan’s food safety scare, including those manufactured by Wei Chuan Food Corp (味全), Chang Chi Foodstuff Factory Co (大統長基), Formosa Oilseed Processing Co (福懋) and Flavor Full Foods (富味鄉), according to the agency’s Web site.
When asked about how the US FDA issues recalls for potentially harmful FDA-regulated products, an agency spokeswoman, Juli Ann Putnam, referred to the FDA’s Web site, which said that “recalls are almost always voluntary” and that “only in rare cases will the FDA request a recall.”
On a blustery Saturday evening last weekend in Flushing, Queens, home to many Taiwanese-Americans during the 1980s, shoppers at Jmart in the New World Mall lingered just a little longer than usual on the instant noodle aisle, mulling over which of the dozens of brands they should buy, as news of Taiwan’s food scandal made headlines in local Chinese-language newspapers and on Chinese-language news broadcasts.