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Nicaragua puts the squeeze on 'poison' Chinese toothpaste

Diethylene glycol menace spreads

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Nicaraguan authorities have seized 40,000 tubes of Chinese "Excel" and "Mr Cool" toothpaste which contain potentially-lethal diethylene glycol, AP reports.

The products - recently pulled from Panamanian shelves following a consumer tip-off that they contained the cheap glycerine substitute - were probably illegally imported from Panama via Costa Rica "by importers who were unaware the tubes were tainted". Despite the seizure, there may still be 80,000 tubes on the local market, the Nicaraguan government cautioned.

The authorities in Honduras earlier this week also took action to contain the potential threat by swooping on two markets and confiscating around 250 tubes of suspect product. The government "urged citizens not to use any toothpaste that may have entered the country as contraband without official seals of approval".

Diethylene glycol last year did for some 50 people in Panama who drank a cough medicine which, instead of pharmaceutical grade glycerine, used diethylene glycol as the suspension agent*.

In the case of Excel and Mr Cool, University of Panama experts found the chemical comprised around 2.5 per cent of the toothpastes - not considered enough to pose a health risk, but sufficient to provoke the powers that be to warn consumers off the products.

Excel and Mr Cool are supplied by the Hengxiang-based Danyang Chengshi Household Chemical Co. The company's general manager Chen Yaozu recently admitted to AP that his firm had exported toothpaste containing diethylene glycol to Panama, but said the chemical was "permitted under Chinese rules and was safe in small amounts". He added: "I can say I am very confident about our product's quality."

While China's food and drug inspection agency is currently investigating the toothpaste suppliers, the powers that be this week sent a rather more powerful message that the country was cleaning up its act. Zheng Xiaoyu, former head of the State Food and Drug Administration, was sentenced to death by a Beijing court for corruption and dereliction of duty.

Zheng allegedly took $850,000 in bribes from eight companies who subsequently punted sub-standard food and pharmaceutical products. The result was numerous deaths including, in 2004, that of "at least 13 babies...in Anhui province after being fed fake milk powder containing no nutrition", according to Reuters.

The People's Daily declared the sentence a "warning" to other officials, but it undoubtedly also serves as an attempt to restore international confidence in China's lucrative chemical and foodstuffs export business. ®

Bootnote

*According to a senior official in China's product-inspection agency, Panamanian manufacturers were actually to blame for the tragedy. Wei Chuanzhong, vice minister of the Administration for Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, said "Chinese companies sold the industrial solvent called 'TD glycerin' to Spanish companies who then sold it to Panamanian companies" who "then used [it] to make cough syrup and other medicine".

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