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Story You Don't Find in Chinese Newspapers


BY Steven Pei [ April 21, 2009 at 09:21:02 ]

Dear Friends,

This is a story that you don't find in any of the Chinese Newspapers.

The case is in the court and the outcome is not known yet. Wei-Chuan (味全) is NOT guilty until proven guilty. However, we, the consumers, should have the rights to know.

Many of us grew up with Wei-Chuan products. If the safety of food products from a brand name like Wei-Chuan cannot by trusted, then shopping at the Asian grocery stores is really a scary adventure.

"Wei-Chuan's violations on an annual basis that date back to 2006." The recent episode started after Ike, which led to "the lawsuit (filed by the State Attorney General in March), which enumerates some 80 violations of the state health code by Wei-Chuan, also describes how the company hid the 'adulterated and contaminated foods' from inspectors". Many of the violations do not seem to be Ike related.

As late as March 27 this year, the City still found violations, while the PR firm hired by Wei-Chuan claimed everything has been taken care of and "the State Office of Administrative Hearings also granted the health department's motion to dismiss the case", which doesn’t seem to be the case.

You may want to share the Chronicle Blog below with your Asian friends and relatives.

Steven Pei

Executive Director, Public Safety Technology Center

University of Houston

__________________

April 20, 2009

*Embattled food company hopes to survive

http://blogs.chron.com/fortbend/

After I wrote about Texas Attorney General's lawsuit filed in March against Wei-Chuan USA Inc., a Houston-based Asian specialty foods wholesaler, and its director Stephen Chen, I was contacted by a PR firm hired by the company that asked to get their side of the story out and invited me to visit the facility.

Read my original blog post here, http://blogs.chron.com/fortbend/archives/2009/03/rat_droppings_a.html.

Susan Risdon, of the firm Red Media Group, sent me copies of documents from the state health department and the State Office of Administrative Hearings to back up the company's claim that it addressed the state concerns timely.

The documents dated October and November of last year indicated that the company, 7439 Langtry St. in north Houston, had trashed numerous tractor-trailer loads of "adulterated" foods that were ordered destroyed by state inspectors, corrected many of the building problems that led to an infestation of rodents and other vermin and contracted a company for pest control services. The documents also showed the state health department's termination of an emergency order that had banned the facility from operating after the October inspection that alarmed the inspectors. As a result, the State Office of Administrative Hearings also granted the health department's motion to dismiss the case, canceling a hearing initially slated for Nov. 13, 2008.

Pretty convincing story that the company, in good faith, put the problems to rest and now all is dandy, right?

The Attorney General's office said no, and, nearly three months after the matter appeared to have gone away, filed the lawsuit.

The AG charged Wei-Chuan and Chen with violating the state health and safety code, and is seeking civil penalties of up to $25,000 per day per violation of the Texas Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act. He also seeks to stop the company's operation in Texas for the short-and long-term.

Turns out that the state inspectors were shortchanged by the company, which led them to have the case dismissed in November, officials said.

Thomas Kelley, a spokesman for AG, on April 14 had this to say to me regarding the dismissal of the case and the "evidence" the PR firm furnished me with:

What the company didn't share with you was what was found in a subsequent inspection by health officials. Instead of cleaning up its problems as previously indicated, Wei-Chuan had simply moved all of the adulterated and contaminated foods to a separate holding area which the inspectors were unable to inspect in the previous inspection. The inspectors found that nothing had been cleaned up and that there was still a significant pest problem which posed a health risk to humans.

I'm certain the state health inspectors would be glad to confirm this but we know this to be the case because they shared this fact with us, of course.

The lawsuit, which enumerates some 80 violations of the state health code by Wei-Chuan, also describes how the company hid the "adulterated and contaminated foods" from inspectors.

Doug McBride, a spokesman for the state health department, declined to comment citing pending litigation.

• • •

In an e-mail, Red Media Group's Risdon also told me that the city of Houston's health department inspected the warehouse in March and "were satisfied with the current situation and issued no citations."

Was that right?

The city's health department spokeswoman Kathy Barton said the March 27 inspection by the city found four violations of municipal laws on health and safety, including plumbing, garbage and toilet problems as well as walls and ceilings in disrepair.

That information is available on the city health department's Web site, http://houston.tx.gegov.com/media/search.cfm?q=d&f=75185&i=49D58341-3048-94EE-983DBE99E1FF7D69&sd=04/05/2006&ed=04/20/2009&z=ALL&m=LIKE&maxrows=10&e=Wei-Chuan&tp=ALL.

A survey of the city's past inspections showed Wei-Chuan's violations on an annual basis that date back to 2006, according to available data on the Web site.

Among the repeat problems, foods were stored in close proximity to or direct contact with walls and floors that needed repairs and "in a manner that does not protect food from contamination."

• • •

Wei-Chuan's director Chen, when reached Monday, blamed the problems on Hurricane Ike, which he said caused damages to the building, ripping 1/3 of the roof off, wetting a portion of the foods. He also denied allegation that he concealed quarantined foods.

He said he moved the foods to a separate building, in which 80 percent of the food items were waiting to be hauled off by a trash disposal company. There, he said, he had two workers sorting the food items to salvage those unaffected.

"I had no intention to hide anything from the inspector. I had to move the foods there because of the condition of the warehouse with all the damages. I wasn't able to get a trash company to come immediately because everybody was busy after the hurricane," he said, adding he had the building substantially fixed within weeks of the hurricane.

Chen said his company has filed a response to the AG's lawsuit. A court date is yet to be set.

Chen said his company was established in Houston in 1972 as a distributor of foods produced or imported and packaged at a Los Angeles-area facility. There are multiple layers of government oversight of its operation and the company welcomes it, he said.

"I'm an immigrant myself and my business serves the immigrant community in the United States. I can't in my conscience do anything to harm the people of this community," he said. "Wei-Chuan is built on its reputation of being safe and healthy."

However, Chen said he has "learned a lesson" from the ordeal with the state.

"I hope we will survive and only pay some fines. But the inspections and monitoring are to help us aware of the problems and improve," he said. "I know all this, including your coverage, will take us to a better place."

• • •

In the meantime, Wei-Chuan products continue to be found in Houston-area Asian grocery stores, with the pending lawsuit known to few shoppers. Two major Chinese-language daily newspapers in Houston, in which Wei-Chuan runs ads, refrained from covering the issue. One of them, the World Journal, is running a press release promoting a new line of "Wei-Chuan pan-fried dumplings" in print and on the Web.

Posted by Zen T.C. Zheng at 05:07 PM


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