By Kim Tong-hyung
Local food makers are becoming embroiled in mounting scandals over an alleged reluctance to take action over food contamination and cases of poor quality standards.
The latest stink bomb comes from Maeil Dairies, which was recently forced to destroy more than 50,000 packages of its ``Premium Gung'' powdered baby milk after health authorities found bacterium in them.
Also suffering public relations disasters are Lotte Confectionery and Crown Confectionery, two of the country's larger snack makers, who were recently forced by the Canadian government to recall some of their most popular cookies and biscuits sold in the country over concerns of allergic reactions.
Enterobacter sakazakii, which was found in the Maeil powered milk, has been red-flagged by health experts as it could cause meningitis or severe gut infections in newborns. The health risks are greater for infants less than a month old or weighing less than 2.5 kilograms.
Maeil said it had destroyed more than 53,400 packages of the powered milk, and said none of the products had reached consumers. However, the company insists that it hasn't found the bacterium in tests at its laboratories and will request health authorities for another test.
``It is not that enterobacter sakazakii is rarely found,'' said a Maeil spokesman.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) issued a warning that people with allergies to milk, eggs, or tree nuts should not consume various snack foods from the Korean companies Crown, Lotte and Surasang. The 10 items include popular products such as Lotte's Pepero biscuits and Crown's Sando Choco and Couque Dasse cookies, which contain allergens that weren't declared on the labels.
The Korea Food and Drug Administration (KFDA) claimed there is nothing seriously wrong with the products.
``Some of the distributed products in Canada failed to abide by the country's labeling laws. There is no reason for local consumers to be particularly alarmed,'' a KFDA official said.
Since being rocked by the melamine scare over their products manufactured in China last year, Korean companies are continuing to test the patience of consumers by being repeatedly exposed for their lax safety standards and quality management.
In February, Namyang Dairy Products was pummeled with criticism after it was found that melamine-containing materials were used for its powdered milk products exported to Vietnam.
In April, Lotte Ham was forced to recall its ``Children's Sausage'' products after they were found to contain excessive levels of sodium nitrate, a common food preservative.
A bigger scandal erupted later in the month, when the KFDA banned the sales of more than 1,000 medical items and baby products produced by 120 companies after finding asbestos-contaminated talc in them. Studies have linked talc particles with tumors in human ovaries and lungs.
And on Tuesday, Consumers Korea, a rights group, claimed that more than 40 percent of the eggs sold at Korean supermarkets were of low quality. The report was based on a test by the Korea Food Research Institute of 32 egg packages sold at major retailers.
Many were contaminated with foreign substances on the shells, while others were exposed for poor packaging and cracks, the civic group said, raising concerns of germ infection.
Pulmuone's ``Morning Fry'' eggs actually had a higher level of cholesterol than the average ― even though the company's advertisements claimed the opposite.
CJ Pressian had been selling its ``Aljjaran'' eggs at premium prices, claiming that they contain four-times more vitamin E than other average egg products. However, the recent report said that that wasn't the case.
Critics argue that food companies, despite their blunders in the past few months, still lack a serious commitment to improve their food safety standards.
After being exposed of putting melamine-contaminated cookies and dairy products on Korean shelves, the chief executives of eight local companies announced plans to spend 4 billion won (about $3 million) to establish a joint testing facility in China to examine the safety of their products manufactured there.
However, it now looks as if it will be impossible to complete the facility by June as originally planned, with companies like Korea Yakult, Crown, Orion Confectionery and SPC set to bail as they recover from the public relations disaster.