Suit alleges shoe boxes contain ingredient in rat repellent

A major manufacturer of anti-fungal products has filed suit in Los Angeles against a competitor, contending that hundreds of thousands of shoe boxes coming into U.S. ports each day could contain a chemical used in rat repellent.

The chemical, known as allyl isothiocyanate, is one of the main active ingredients in packing material made by YCM Co., of Taiwan, according to a civil lawsuit filed Tuesday by competitor Micro-Pak, of Hong Kong.

The two companies both make items to thwart the growth of fungus or mold, which can ruin shoes during shipment by sea. Because most shoes sold in the U.S. come from Asia aboard cargo container ships that take multi-day ocean voyages, footwear manufacturers commonly put some kind of anti-moisture packing material in shoe boxes, usually silica gel packets or anti-fungal stickers or sheets.

More than 2 billion pairs of shoes were imported in 2012, and China accounted for nearly 90% of those sold domestically, according to the American Footwear and Apparel Assn. Americans on average bought seven pairs of shoes in 2012, collectively spending $72.4 billion on footwear that year.

Micro-Pak says its lawsuit represents more than a spat between companies that are little known by consumers. Instead it is an attempt to expose "a potential threat to consumers and others," according to its complaint filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court.

Micro-Pak contends that YCM engaged in unfair competition because it didn't register its products with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as required, nor with the California Department of Pesticide Regulation. Federal law requires the registration of products that contain pesticides.

"By ignoring those regulations, they have an unfair advantage in the marketplace," said Michael Fisher, the attorney representing Micro-Pak. "They don't have to bear the costs associated with compliance."

"This isn't about trying to grab money," Fisher said. "This is about trying to get a big market to comply with federal and state law … in order to protect consumers."

Fisher said no injuries have been reported by consumers, but said that doesn't mean that products containing the rat repellent chemical can't cause harm in the long run.

"This is an issue of totality of exposure," Fisher said.

The lawsuit is seeking an injunction against YCM to stop it from selling its products without EPA approval.

Phone calls placed with YCM at three numbers listed on its website went unanswered Tuesday. An email seeking comment was also not immediately returned Tuesday.

The lawsuit and YCM's website lists as its customers dozens of well-known shoe brands including Toms, Zara, Ecco and Nike. It says its products are "made from natural ingredients" and have passed "many reputed certifications."

Requests for comment from Nike and Toms were not immediately returned Tuesday.

EPA officials said the agency has no record of YCM registering its products. The EPA considers any appropriate enforcement actions in coordination with state and local agencies, the officials said.

The EPA has previously tackled the issue of antimicrobial chemicals used in footwear. The agency in 2010 settled with Crocs Inc., the maker of the well-known clogs, over "unsubstantiated antimicrobial claims."

The Colorado company agreed to pay $230,000 to resolve the matter, and it was forced to remove language from its materials that said its shoes were antimicrobial because their products were not registered with the EPA.

Twitter: @rljourno

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