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Tainted Foods Often Violate Country of Origin Rules

Posted September. 26, 2008 07:35,   


A first grader at an elementary school in western Seoul often buys a substandard snack from a stationery shop in front of the school. Though her mom tells her not to eat it, she says she keeps doing so because of its taste.

A similar situation is seen at another stationery store in front of an elementary school in northern Seoul. Dozens of snacks are on display, with some made by well-known confection makers but most by small manufacturers.

When asked what snacks are popular among elementary school students, the shop owner named 16 snacks mostly priced between 100 and 200 won and the combined cost being no more than 1,800 won.

The scare over melamine-tainted Chinese food has reached Korea and people are questioning the safety of snacks sold near elementary schools.

Since country of origin is unknown for most of these snacks, experts warn of another safety scare from these foods.

The Dong-A Ilbo surveyed 20 places nearby elementary schools in Seoul and inspected 10-18 snacks popular among young students.

Half of the snacks labeled their country of origin as just “imported,” with no details on where they were made.

Many of them have no information on country of origin. Under a law governing food quality, products made with domestic ingredients only are exempt from the country of origin regulation. According to the Korea Food and Drug Administration, 90 percent of ingredients used in these snacks are imported, so no labeling in essence means imported products turn into domestically produced foods.

Of 16 kinds of snacks the Dong-A Ilbo collected, only seven correctly identified their country of origin. Five had no labels and four were labeled imported products, meaning less than half of them can be trusted.

One stationery store owner said he cannot ignore the high demand for the snacks because children want them because they are so cheap.

One fourth grader said, “I buy snacks with change after purchasing school supplies. Everybody eats them. I find nothing wrong with it.”

One parent in western Seoul said, “I dropped by a store in my neighborhood to buy my six-year-old daughter a snack, and found a host of snacks selling for 100 won that I’d never heard of.”

Small grocery and stationery stores get these food products mostly from small manufacturers with no supervision from food authorities.

When a food scare arises, such that which broke out in March due to shrimp chips containing a mouse’s head, government agencies scrambled to address the problem and presented countermeasures. The government, however, has made no effort to preempt this crisis.

Won Hee-mok, a lawmaker of the ruling Grand National Party, blasted the government for its late response, saying, “Officials from the Korea Food and Drug Administration were dispatched to China in the wake of the melamine scandal and found problems on Sept. 11. But the agency started an investigation a week later.”

The Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry also sat idle, denying Chinese dairy products such as milk power and ice cream had been imported. In addition, the law on quality control of agricultural products allows importers to label their food raw materials and half-processed products as imported products instead of labeling country of origin if they change their supplying country more than three times over three years. All this shows the government’s lack of willingness to conduct quality control.

Calls are growing for revision of regulations on country of origin labeling.

Confectionary companies are not free from responsibility, either. Rather than strengthening production management, they just issue official apologies when incidents arise.

Haitai Confectionery and Food Co. denied association with 22 Chinese companies producing melamine-tainted milk power until government tests found the chemical in their snack Misarang Custard.

Haitai has dispatched no employees to Chinese factories and conducts inspections every one or two months.

Lee Gwang-won, a food engineering professor at Korea University, said, “Advanced countries are strengthening country of origin regulations for food products that children consume. Thorough monitoring must be carried out when products are imported and much stricter food safety standards are needed.”

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