Discount stores in Maryland and three other states sold toothpaste falsely packaged as Colgate and spiked with a poisonous chemical used in antifreeze, federal health officials said yesterday.
The Food and Drug Administration is investigating who laced the toothpaste with diethylene glycol, which FDA inspectors first discovered last week in a tube on the shelf of a Silver Spring discount store.
The Colgate-Palmolive Co. warned consumers to beware of counterfeits and is helping recall the tainted products.
Although federal health officials emphasized that the risk to consumers was low, the episode deepened concerns about a food safety system reeling from contamination of fresh produce, peanut butter and pet food.
"Counterfeiting of foods is certainly an issue that needs attention, especially with concerns regarding intentional contaminants," said Michael Doyle, director of the University of Georgia's Center for Food Safety. He said counterfeits of infant formula have previously been an issue. Mislabeled and adulterated wheat gluten was the pet food problem.
The Dollar Power store in Silver Spring sold 22 tubes of toothpaste that might have been contaminated, its owner said. Neither federal nor state health authorities have received any reports of illness.
Diethylene glycol emerged as a threat after its discovery last September in Chinese-made cough syrup that killed more than 50 people in Panama. Public health officials in the United States and other countries have been on the hunt for the chemical since it was found in toothpaste in Panama and traced back to China last month.
After finding tainted shipments at discount stores in the United States, the FDA said on June 1 that it was blocking all imports of toothpaste from China, and it advised consumers to avoid using Chinese-made toothpaste.
"The health hazard is low because toothpaste is not meant to be ingested, but regardless, this stuff is not supposed to be in toothpaste," said Doug Arbesfeld, an FDA spokesman. The agency is especially concerned about children or adults with kidney or liver disease swallowing tainted toothpaste.
The latest discovery adds to the alarm because it was found in tubes of toothpaste sold as "Colgate" and labeled as "Manufactured in South Africa."
Colgate said it doesn't import toothpaste from South Africa, has never used diethylene glycol as an ingredient and did not make the recalled products. It said the counterfeits contained several misspellings, such as "isclinically", "SOUTH AFRLCA" and "South African Dental Assoxiation."
Allison Klimerman, a Colgate spokeswoman, said the company is working with the FDA and Customs officials to recall the contaminated products.
The FDA made the latest finding as part of its stepped-up search for diethylene glycol, Arbesfeld said. An agency inspector visiting the Dollar Power store in Silver Spring on June 7 discovered the chemical in a 100-milliliter tube, said Lampert Ham, the store's owner.
Ham said he promptly destroyed the 122 tubes of toothpaste from the shipment that his store had not yet sold. Ham said he had not heard any complaints from customers. He said he had been buying toothpaste from the distributor, MS USA Trading, for two years without any problems.
MS USA Trading, of North Bergen, N.J., imported the toothpaste and distributed it to discount stores in Maryland, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, according to Colgate. The New Jersey company, which was not answering its phone yesterday, is helping with the recall, Colgate said.
Levels of diethylene glycol in the recalled toothpaste tubes ranged from 1 percent to 4 percent of the total weight, Arbesfeld said. In the past, counterfeiters have used diethylene glycol instead of a more expensive ingredient, glycerin, to thicken toothpaste.
State health authorities in Maryland said they had received no information about whether or where the contaminated toothpaste was being sold in Maryland.
"We haven't received any kind of official information from the FDA or been asked to do anything by the FDA," said John Hammond, a spokesman for the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, the Baltimore City health commissioner, said his department is looking for suspect products.
Sun reporter Frank Roylance contributed to this article.
Diethylene glycol, a poisonous chemical used in antifreeze, was found in toothpaste falsely packaged as Colgate and labeled "Manufactured in South Africa."
Discount stores in Maryland might have sold tainted toothpaste.
Colgate-Palmolive Co. is warning consumers to avoid toothpaste said to be made in South Africa. The company said consumers can easily recognize counterfeits by noticing misspellings on the label, such as "isclinically" and "SOUTH AFRLCA" or "South African Dental Assoxiation."
Consumers who suspect they bought a counterfeit product can call Colgate at 1-800-468-6502.
The FDA is also asking consumers to avoid using toothpaste made in China.