Calm urged after cancer-causing agent reported in dried foods

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 January, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 January, 2002, 12:00am

Food authorities have advised the public not to be unduly alarmed after reports that samples of dried mushrooms, shrimp and octopus were found to contain potentially dangerous levels of formaldehyde, a cancer-causing agent.

A Chinese-language weekly news magazine reported yesterday that it collected the samples from seven shops and supermarkets.

The magazine said test results from two laboratories found that 18 of the 23 samples contained high levels of formaldehyde.

Hong Kong consumes 2,800 tonnes of dried mushrooms imported from the mainland, mostly from Henan province, each year, Next Magazine said. Legislator Dr Lo Wing-lok, of the medical sector, said the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department told him formaldehyde should not be used as an additive, but the regulation regarding formalin - or formaldehyde in water solution - is that the level, if detected in pre-packaged food, should not exceed five parts per million.

Dr Lo said formaldehyde could cause cancer if people were exposed to it for a long time and it was unacceptable if traces were found in food products.

A spokesman for the department said it had taken 100 samples of dried mushrooms and other foods over the past few years for laboratory tests and found them all satisfactory. Inspectors from the department began taking samples of the products yesterday at the supermarkets named in the article, he said.

'We would like to advise the public not to be unduly alarmed [by the report],' he said. The chemical easily dissolved in water and people should wash the food items thoroughly or soak them in water before cooking, he said.

Dr Lo said he expected the Government to act promptly to verify the report's allegations. He said he believed that government food inspections were being carried out professionally.

Last November, the department checked samples of the winter delicacy hairy crabs after Next Magazine reported that tests showed traces of the antibiotics chloramphenicol and oxytetracycline, and steroids.

A week later, the department said all 27 samples of crabs tested were found without traces of the antibiotics and steroids.

The department promised to keep up food monitoring and called for public vigilance.