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August 16, 2011

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Hidden danger in bird's nest soup

SHANGHAI authorities are investigating the main ingredient of the bird's nest soup made of red cubilose in local markets after tests in Zhejiang Province found it was not only counterfeit but contained carcinogenic nitrite.

Edible bird's nests, mostly made of the secretion from the salivary glands of birds, are an expensive delicacy and have been used in Chinese cooking for hundreds of years.

In restaurants, a bowl of bird's nest soup can cost up to US$100.

Red cubilose is the rarest variety. It is the nests built on rock cliffs, and the mineral elements on the cliff, iron especially, permeates into the nests, coloring them red.

The product, boasting a high protein and mineral content, is particularly popular with women aiming to maintain a youthful appearance. Usually eaten as a sweet soup, it is also made into snacks.

Zhejiang officials said yesterday that more than 200 kilograms of red cubilose obtained from the market had been tested and found to have an average nitrite content of 4.4 grams per kilogram on average, with some having as much as 11 grams per kilogram.

Several brands, including Yinghuang, Yanzhiwu, Zhengji and Qinghetang, contained more than 10 grams per kilogram.

From Malaysia

Nitrite is only allowed in cured meat, and the upper limit is 70 milligrams per kilogram.

The officials said most of the red cubilose was imported from Malaysia and reached the market in Zhejiang via trading companies based in Guangdong and Sichuan provinces and in Hong Kong.

An agriculture vice minister of Malaysia, Chua Tee Yong, was earlier cited by the Sin Chew Daily, a Malaysian newspaper, as saying all the so-called "red cubilose" on the market was fake.

Video footage obtained by the administration showed that several dealers admitted that almost all the red cubilose on the market were ordinary bird's nests that had been dyed, resulting in excessive nitrite levels.

Huqingyutang, a traditional Chinese medicine store in Zhejiang, said it had stopped selling red cubilose as it couldn't tell exactly were the product came from or how it was produced.

Tonic vendors said genuine red cubilose was hard to find and it was impossible to get enough to satisfy demand.

"We usually recommend common cubilose, or white cubilose, to consumers," said a vendor at the Kaixuanmen Health Food Market near Shanghai Railway Station. "Usually red cubilose's price should be two times higher than white cubilose, but here it is only 1 yuan (15 US cents) higher. We all know it's not genuine."

"Nitrite links to stomach cancer and esophagus cancer," said Gu Zhenhua, a Shanghai Food and Drug Administration official. "Long-term consumption increases the risk of cancer."


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