Feds bust importers of fake toothpaste

By Laird Harrison, Senior Editor

August 23, 2008 -- Two New York companies and two New York City residents have pleaded guilty to importing tons of counterfeit Colgate toothpaste with poisonous ingredients.

The toothpaste, manufactured in China, contained both diethylene glycol (DEG) -- a notoriously toxic food additive -- and potentially dangerous microorganisms, according to the U.S. Justice Department and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The toothpaste also lacked fluoride.

New York City residents Saifoulaye Diallo and Habib Bah and two New York corporations, Mabass and Vidtape, admitted to having sold a combined total of 518,028 tubes of the toothpaste with an estimated retail value of $730,419, the agencies said.

“I felt guilty because of the price.”
— Counterfeit Colgate importer Saifoulaye Diallo

The toothpaste and its packaging closely resembled the real Colgate product, Diallo, of the Afro Atlantic company, told DrBicuspid.com. And he had seen it for sale at New York area 99¢ stores. So when he visited China in 2006 to look for products to import, he didn't know the toothpaste was counterfeit. "I thought because everything looked right, it was real," he said.

An immigrant from Guinea, Diallo didn't notice small discrepancies in the packaging, such as misspelled words, that later helped clue investigators to the fact that the toothpaste was counterfeit.

Chinese government protest

Diallo bought a shipment of 82,944 tubes, then resold them to New York 99¢ stores. After that, he decided to stop. "I felt guilty because of the price," he said. He paid 22¢ per tube plus import costs, and began to realize the product might not be genuine.

According to the FDA, the ersatz Colgate toothpaste comes labeled as a 5 ounce or 100 mL tube, a size not made or sold by Colgate in the U.S., and was falsely labeled "Manufactured in South Africa."

In June 2007, the FDA issued a warning against using Chinese-made toothpastes, including the counterfeit Colgate, because it had found up to 4% of DEG in them. "The FDA is concerned about chronic exposure to DEG and exposure to the product in certain populations, such as children and individuals with kidney or liver disease," the statement said. "Toothpaste containing DEG has a low but meaningful risk of toxicity and injury to these populations."

DEG, used in antifreeze and other industrial products, has sometimes been substituted for glycerin as a sweetener and used to retain moisture in foods and drugs. Deaths associated with DEG gave the impetus for the legislation that established the FDA in 1938. In 2006, cough syrup tainted with the compound killed at least two dozen children in Panama.

The Chinese government, however, argued that small amounts of DEG are safe in toothpaste. "Our research shows that toothpaste containing up to 15.6% diethylene glycol, the chemical that the U.S. side is concerned about, is safe, even after prolonged use," the Chinese General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ) said in a June 2007 statement quoted by China Daily.

According to the U.S. Justice Department, the counterfeit Colgate toothpaste also contained "microoganisms, such as bacillus spores." Bacillus is a genus of bacteria that includes anthrax and others that produce toxins.

Asked if the U.S. government or Chinese officials are pursuing the manufacturers of the counterfeit Colgate product, Justice Department spokesperson Kimberly McGuire said she couldn't comment on "any ongoing investigation."

The final fate of Diallo and the other defendants won't be determined until a January 9, 2009, hearing. But according to the Justice Department statement, the individual defendants could serve up to 10 years in prison, pay a fine of $2 million, and then serve three years of supervised release. The two corporate defendants face up to a $5 million fine, restitution, and up to five years of organizational probation, the statement said.

And Diallo is finished with imports for good. "Maybe I can drive a cab," he said.

Copyright © 2008 DrBicuspid.com
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