Even if the food doesn't make you sick, the plate it sits on might - if you don't use it properly.
That was the warning yesterday from the Consumer Council, after tests on a type of plastic tableware commonly used as a substitute for easily broken ceramic products.
Nine of 39 samples of melamine-ware bowls, plates and chopsticks failed the mainland's stringent hygiene standards on the leaking of toxic formaldehyde and melamine monomer into food.
The warning has left the restaurant trade, which has used such products for years, seeking more information about whether it should continue to do so. The council said such plates should not be put into dishwashers or used to serve food that is particularly hot or sour.
It also stirred memories of the scandal over melamine-tainted milk products that made 300,000 babies ill and killed at least six on the mainland in 2008.
Ambrose Ho, chairman of the council's publicity and community relations committee, says there is no need for panic. 'Adding melamine straight into food is strictly prohibited, but finding small amounts of melamine and formaldehyde in food is very natural and will not cause any health problems. We should be fine as long as these products are used correctly,' Ho said.
Used properly, most such products meet mainland and the less stringent European Union standards, the council said. But chief executive Connie Lau Yin-hing said the council would ask restaurants to minimise the use of melamine ware.
'We don't suggest plastic chopsticks be used for hotpot,' she said. 'Restaurants should also refrain from serving hot noodles and soups in [melamine-ware] bowls and no melamine ware should go through the dishwasher.'
Wear and tear would also accelerate the leaking of chemicals into food, so restaurants should swap frequently used melamine ware with other types of products or replace them often, Lau said.
Simon Wong Ka-wo, president of the Hong Kong Federation of Restaurants and Related Trades, said that if there were possible health hazards from melamine ware, the federation would suggest that restaurants stop using it.
'Melamine ware is very popular and has been used for a long time. If we need to convince restaurants to stop using melamine ware, we need to know some details - like how hot is too hot for these bowls? What temperature would cause leakage of formaldehyde or melamine?'
He said the federation would seek more details from the Consumer Council on the potential hazards.
Meanwhile, the council's monthly Choice magazine urges people buying medical insurance to pay attention to exclusions and definitions in their plans to avoid disputes.
The council received 61 complaints over medical insurance last year, most of them about claims or insurers' advertising methods.
'We suggest that insurance companies avoid using potentially misleading slogans like 'lifetime plan' if the plan is not really for a lifetime,' Ho said. The council suggests that the government set up an independent authority to monitor and regulate health insurance advertising and protect policyholders.