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Food industry hit by benzene scare in take-out boxes

Food industry hit by benzene scare in take-out boxes

Production at Pacific Crown Printing in Taichung has been suspended and the company has been slapped with a fine of NT$1.5 million by the city’s Bureau of Health after authorities confirmed that employees have been using benzene to wipe oil stains off of paper boxes before printing. The boxes are used to pack box lunches and takeout orders in a number of chain food stores across Taiwan.

Supplies of the paper boxes in question have been hastily recalled at prestigious Din Tai Fong as well as JSP, Taipei Chiang Spicy Duck, Three Mothers Stinky Hot Pot, Taiwan Chicken King, Tomato Burger and even China Airlines, as food vendors scramble to minimize the damage to their reputations from the fast-breaking food scare.

Chu Ming-yao, General Manager of Pacific Crown, had originally denied reports of the practice at the printing company, but was forced to admit that benzene was being used after being confronted by a group led by Taichung Vice Mayor Tsai Ping-kun and Huang Mei-na, head of the city’s Bureau of Health.

Investigation has shown that as many as 35 employees of the printing shop were using the solvent to wipe oil stains off of an estimated 1500 to 2000 paper boxes each daily, meaning that as many as 50,000 to 70,000 boxes a day may have been contaminated. Employees told media reporters that using benzene on a daily basis had made them feel dizzy but that they had no choice – they were ‘just trying to make a living.’

Benzene is a toxic organic solvent which can cause dizziness and nausea if used in applications like wiping lunch boxes without sufficient ventilation. Extended inhalation of the fumes over a long period can lead to liver and kidney damage and impaired function of other organs.

Yang Chen-chang, a doctor in the Clinical Toxicology Department at Taipei Veterans General Hospital, warns that benzene is a cleaning solvent widely used in industry to remove glue, tape, paint and other adhesives. It has a pungent taste but is clear and colorless, and it generally distinguished only by smell.

Yang adds that ingestion of benzene, may cause mild gastrointestinal discomfort, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or abdominal pain, and if consumed in large quantities can also cause renal tubular acidosis,

One manager at Din Tai Fung said the disclosure had really caught them off-balance, saying, "We were really surprised, because actually they use food-grade soy ink to print these paper containers, so we don’t quite understand why they would use an organic solvent intended for industrial use to wipe the boxes."

One effect of the benzene scare is that some long-time customers of the affected businesses have switched to bringing their own containers to pack take-out items, box lunches or left-over foods from restaurants. In return, some restaurant operators are offering modest discounts of NT$5 to 10 as an incentive for more customers to bring their own containers.