ALEX COHEN, host:
From NPR News, it's Day to Day. It's now the year of the Ox. The Chinese Lunar New Year starts today, and that's usually good news for the companies that import Chinese-made biscuits, cakes, and other treats. But not this year. Many of those New Year's goodies are currently being held up by federal authorities who want to make sure these imported delicacies are safe to eat. Oanh Ha prepared this report.
OANH HA: A worker at the Ocean Supermarket in Silicon Valley stacks red round containers of peanut and sesame candy - sweets for the Lunar New Year. Store manager Ken Ba(ph), describes the holidays offerings.
Mr. KEN BA (Store manager, Ocean Supermarket, Silicon Valley): (Foreign language spoken)
HA: Peanut brittle, strips of dry coconut flesh dyed green and pink, and lotus seeds. This year, the new year sweets at this store are all imported from just one country, Vietnam. Biscuits and cakes filled with mung bean and pineapple from China are also popular. But this year, many Asian supermarkets are stocking very few of those treats.
Since November, all food items from China that contain milk have been stacking up in warehouses like this one near the Oakland port. They sit until laboratory tests show they're free of the industrial chemical melamine. Importers can either hire a lab to do the testing or request the Food and Drug Administration do it. Either way, they say it's a long wait.
Mr. JASON LAM (Sales and Marketing Manager, New Horizon Enterprises): So this area right here was specifically assigned items that cannot be used mainly because FDA has been holding our shipments. We're running out of space, so we have to double stock everything.
HA: Jason Lam and his father run New Horizon which imports food from Hong Kong and China. Some of the company's shipments have been sitting here since October. The FDA imposed the testing requirement last fall after a handful of food items sold in the U.S. tested positive for melamine. The chemical was added to milk in China to artificially boost protein levels. Tainted milk has hospitalized thousands of Chinese children.
Mr. ALBERT LIN(ph) (Representative, Oriental Food Association): This item here is a deluxe assorted gift box. The design is specific to Chinese New Year. So once past Chinese New Year, it will be very difficult to sell.
HA: Albert Lin represents the Oriental Food Association, a trade group of importers in California. He says the delays mean many members are losing money.
Mr. LIN: Each container represents a lost revenue. And they sit here. We can't sell them. We could turn $2 million worth of merchandise a month. We can't do that now because it's stuck here.
HA: The FDA says the review period is 30 days, but it can take longer if inspectors need to go over test results. Twelve hundred products have been flagged under the new testing requirement. Almost a quarter have been released. Forty items so far were barred from the market either because the products contained melamine or did not meet FDA standards. Stephen Sundlof directs the FDA Center for Food Safety. He says the import alert is effective.
Dr. STEPHEN SUNDLOF (Director, FDA Center of Food Safety): Certainly, we have had no indication that anyone has been injured by melamine in the United States. It's very protective of the American public.
HA: Food importers say they're already changing how they do business, ordering fewer products that require testing. And that means at Asian supermarkets like this one, consumers looking to buy goods from China can expect poor selection and eventually higher prizes. For NPR News, I'm Oanh Ha.