Wed, Mar 25, 2015 - Page 3 News List

Seaweed seized in tainting scare

COST CUTTING:Prosecutors said a couple had admitted using industrial-grade ammonium bicarbonate because food-grade chemicals were less effective and cost more

By Huang Chia-lin, Hung Ting-hung and Chen Wei-han  /  Staff reporters, with staff writer

An official in Kaohsiung on Sunday inspects seaweed intended for human consumption.

Photo: Huang Chia-lin, Taipei Times

Kaohsiung police and prosecutors have seized large amounts of seaweed-based products that they said had been soaked in industrial-grade ammonium aluminum sulfate, or alum, and ammonium bicarbonate solutions.

An estimated 4,000 tonnes of tainted products might have entered Kaohsiung’s traditional markets over the past 10 years, officials from the city’s Department of Health and the Kaohsiung District Prosecutors’ Office said on Monday.

The tainted seaweed products were reportedly manufactured with ammonium bicarbonate meant for industrial use, which contains heavy metals such as lead and arsenic, and could lead to chronic poisoning if consumed over an extended period, department officials said.

Long-term intake of the compound could result in metabolic disorder, impaired blood production and neurological disorders, the department added.

According to the prosecutors’ office, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) officials said that during a field inspection of a chemical supplier in Pingtung County on Wednesday, the FDA discovered that a vegetable retailer in Kaohsiung had ordered a batch of ammonium bicarbonate.

The FDA reported the order to the prosecutors’ office, which organized a joint inspection with the department and the police, the prosecutors said.

The prosecutors’ office said that 57-year-old retailer Pan Kuei-lien (潘桂連) and his 55-year-old wife, Chen Lai-man (陳來滿), had manufactured and sold seaweed products for 10 years.

Prosecutors alleged that the couple dipped raw seaweed in a solution made with alum before soaking it in an alkalized solution made with ammonium bicarbonate to soften the product.

The couple produced 2,000 jin to 3,000 jin (1,200kg to 1,800kg) every day, or 36 tonnes a month, the prosecutors said, adding that they suspected an estimated 4,000 tonnes of seaweed products from the retailer had been sold in markets in Zuoying (左營), Fongshan (鳳山) and Dashe (大社) districts over the past 10 years.

Industrial-grade ammonium bicarbonate is traditionally used for cleaning and softening leather, the prosecutors’ office said.

Bank accounts in the couples’ names with total deposits of NT$9 million (US$287,210) had been frozen to avoid potential liquidation, they said.

The couple were quoted by the prosecutors as admitting to the alleged crime to investigators, saying that they turned to industrial-grade ammonium bicarbonate because food-grade ammonium bicarbonate was less effective and cost NT$200 more per 25kg, the prosecutors said.

They sold the tainted products for NT$25 to NT$30 per jin, a 20 percent markup on the production cost, making an estimated net profit of NT$40 million over the 10 years, the prosecutors said.

The prosecutors requested that the couple be detained, but a court said that detention was unnecessary because the couple had admitted to the alleged crime.

Additional reporting by CNA

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