Sunday, February 26, 2012

Weekender: No Soup For Me!

From Wolf Richter at Testosteronepit:  "All heck broke loose in China when it was announced last August that blood-red bird's nests, the rarest and most expensive kind, contained high concentrations of the carcinogen sodium nitrite - up to 350 times the legal limit. (A "blood nest" is red because the bird secretes blood into it, according to legend. It has medicinal powers that run the usual gamut from curing constipation to raising libido.) In fact, the male Swiftlet, a small bird common in Southeast Asia, spends about 35 days constructing a nest on the wall of a cave by interweaving strands of saliva. These harden into a bowl-like structure (cubilose) with high levels of minerals. Most are whitish. Blood nests can occur when iron and other minerals in the rock are absorbed by the nest. But they're extremely rare, and retail for around $4 per gram ($1,800 per pound). The announcement and rumors scared the bejesus out of one of the largest traditional Chinese medicine retailers; it recalled all its edible bird's nest products. Sales of major Chinese brands plummeted. They pressed authorities to tighten controls on the cubilose industry - a big business in Malaysia and Indonesia. Combined, they have about 100 million producers and processors, mostly small shops. Turns out, Malaysia's cubilose industry produces only white nests - 600 tons a year, cultured in special concrete buildings. It also harvests about 10 tons of cave nests. So, they dye them. Dyeing nests has become an industry of its own, involves a lot of sodium nitrite, and costs $50 to $100 per kilogram. (Customers can even specify the hue they want.) Good for your health? Toxic and carcinogenic hydrogen peroxide, sulfur dioxide, sulfur trioxide, and others are used to remove the awful smell and detritus from the raw material, and traces of those chemicals remain. Additionally, all cubilose carry health risks, even natural red cubilose: the nitrite can't be removed. Some contain lead or mercury. All this has been known for a long time. You can't keep a whole industry silent, though they tried. This from Xinhua: "Government and industry officials" from Malaysia held a press conference on July 26, 2011, purporting that blood-red cubilose on the Chinese market was genuine and safe as the nitrite can be removed after hours of soaking. Ironically, the government organizations and agencies these "officials" claimed to represent do not exist. (And soaking can't remove all the nitrite.) The poisonous blood nest scare has now settled down to a low rumble. Blood nests have been part of Chinese cuisine for centuries and have achieved near divine status. By mid-September, demand had recovered. So next time you're enjoying an $80 bowl of blood nest soup at your fave restaurant in Shanghai, just remember that one bowl alone probably won't kill you."