Authorities in the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang are investigating a company accused of selling used tea leaves as new, a local official said on Thursday, in the latest of the country's food safety scandals.
"We are still in the process of investigating [this matter]," said the official surnamed Liu, who answered the phone at the quality control bureau in Zhejiang's Anji county. "We still don't have any conclusion."
He said officials were investigating claims that the Kaifeng Tea Co. had been repackaging dried, used tea leaves as new and selling them both domestically and for export.
"The factory has been sealed off and has ceased production for the time being," Liu said. "The chemical tests will be back soon, within a week."
"We can't yet tell you whether the tea at this factory has passed or failed [quality control tests]," he said.
The investigation came after a report from the Guangzhou-based Southern Metropolis newspaper group alleged that Kaifeng's Anji factory boss had bought used tea leaves, acting through a Guangzhou-based company called Dingjin Beverage Co., from the Kangshibo Holding Co., also in Guangdong.
The paper quoted employees at the Kaifeng factory as saying that their boss also ran tea factories in Guangdong and the eastern province of Anhui.
Calls to the mobile phone of the Kaifeng factory owner, surnamed Lu, as well as calls to the factory's main offices, went unanswered during office hours on Thursday.
Pillows of tea
However, an employee surnamed Yang who answered the phone at the Kangshibo Holding Co., which owns Kaifeng, said that her company had already terminated its contract with the Anji factory.
"The waste management company promised us at the time that they were taking our waste tea leaves to make pillows with," Yang said. "We never thought they would take them and sell them on again."
"We greatly regret this, and we will be cooperating fully with the investigation by the authorities," she said.
She said the company was considering taking legal action against the waste management company Sanshi Siliao.
Calls to the offices of Sanshi Siliao went unanswered during office hours on Thursday.
Currently, a shipment of eight metric tonnes of wet, waste tea leaves changes hands in China for around 1,000 yuan (U.S. $157), according to the Southern Metropolis report.
Ordinary Chinese people are still reeling from a string of public health scandals affecting foodstuffs and medicines in recent years, including melamine-tainted infant formula milk, used "gutter" cooking oil, and tainted vaccines.
A Guangzhou resident surnamed Yu said there were obviously large profits to be made by selling shoddy, fake or defective goods to unsuspecting consumers.
"This happened because of the existence of very serious corruption," Yu said. "There are close ties between government and business across mainland China right now, and unscrupulous businesses will stop at nothing; they have no social conscience at all."
Reported by Fung Yat-yiu for RFA's Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.