Unilever, the soaps to Slim-Fast packaged consumer goods group, has a well-established presence in China for both its international and local brands. It has had a global R&D headquarters in Shanghai for a couple of years. Earlier this year, it became the first European multinational to issue renminbi-denominated bonds. So the discovery of unusually high levels of toxic rare earths in a batch of one of its Lipton brand teas is a poke in the eye for it, albeit one that a number of multinationals, including Wal-Mart and Johnson & Johnson, have experienced recently.
The General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ) says that in a check of 58 brands of oolong teas around the country, it found 19 samples in which traces of rare earths were higher than the permitted 2 milligrams per kilogram. In Lipton’s case, it was 3.2 milligrams per kilogram; the highest concentration found was 5 milligrams per kilogram in a tea from Fujian. Lipton’s sample, a 50 gram box of Iron Goddess of Mercy tea, was tested in Anhui. (AQSIQ news release).
Oolong tea producers sometimes add fertilizers containing rare earths to the soil as they are believed to enhance flavor and raise yields of oolong teas. A parallel test by AQSIQ of 90 black teas turned up no higher than permitted concentrations of contaminants, and the only two samples that failed appear to have done so for passing themselves off as higher grades of tea than they really were.
Excessive fertilization risks transmissions of toxins in damaging concentrations to tea drinkers. Unilever has said it believes its offending oolong tea picked up its trace amounts from the soil; and that it wasn’t a case of adulteration during production. The batch in question, which was produced last January, has already been recalled and destroyed, the company says.
AQISQ officials in Sichuan, who have been investigating tea production there since September, say some local producers were adding substances such as lead, chromium, talc and glutinous rice paste to their teas. Slipshod, unhygenic and ill-regulated production has emerged as a common theme behind many of the product safety concerns that have been such a touchy issue with consumers since the deadly melamine-tainted infant formula scandal of 2008. Beijing has made strides in improving food and product safety quality controls, but the sheer size of China’s food and consumer goods industries – and the persistence of cosy links between local companies and officials – makes it an overwhelming task for regulators. For political reasons, Beijing has been reluctant to allow the growth of grass-roots consumer movements to share the load, just as for other political reasons, the odd pop at multinationals – Lipton is the only well-known foreign-owned brand fingered this time – is irresistible to show that there are no clean hands anywhere, so to speak.