MALAYSIA - China has ordered a national check on red bird's nest after samples were found to have higher than permitted nitrite levels. But the shocker was that blame was put on Malaysian exporters.
A spot check conducted on red cubilose, better known as red bird's nest, in East China's Zhejiang province has developed from an isolated case into a national affair, and threatens to go international.
Local market watchdogs have been ordered by China's federal government to carry out inspection on all edible bird's nest in the market in view of serious industrial contamination.
Results from recent tests conducted by the Zhejiang Administration for Industry and Commerce on more than 30,000 cups of red bird's nest in the past two months showed that almost all the samples contained nitrite levels in contravention of China's health standards, with some up to 350 times above levels.
Nitrite is a toxic substance that may lead to chronic poisoning.
The authorities blamed it on cubilose imports from Malaysia. Malaysian bird nest exporters, stunned by the allegation, said Malaysia had never been known as a producer of the so-called "blood-red cubilose".
They suspect some bad apples in the industry could have made the fake bird's nest for a quick kill.
Checks at a wholesale market and several other retail outlets in Beijing revealed that all bird's nest products had been removed from the shelves; and retailers were awaiting the authorities' green light for the sale of the nutritious food again.
"It is a risk to sell or even display bird's nest now as the authorities will come and check our products regularly," said Xu Shuhan, a wholesaler from Hongyuan Abalone & Shark's Fin Trading Company at the Da Hong Men Wholesale Market.
"Not only that, they will take away boxes of samples for examination, and it will be a big loss for us. So, it is better to stop selling them."
He said he had turned away many dealers and customers seeking to buy bird's nest under the counter.
A sales promoter from the Long Xi Shang Pin wholesale outlet said they had been keeping their bird's nest products in the storeroom for about two weeks now to avoid any problem with the authorities.
She said they sourced their products from Guangdong province, but could not tell which country they were imported from.
Li Yumei, a chain store owner of Yanzhiwu, one of China's largest bird's nest chains, said she had removed all the cubilose products, both white and red bird's nest, from her store in the Shuangjing area and sent them for inspection.
On Aug 17, Xiamen Suntama Industry Development Co Ltd, the owner of Yanzhiwu brand, said the company had ordered all its chain stores around China to stop selling their product, a day after the State Administration for Industry and Commerce notified all local departments to beef up inspection and enforcement on bird's nest to ensure food safety.
Like many Chinese companies, Suntama sources bird's nest mainly from South-East Asian countries for processing and subsequent packaging for the local market.
Despite the nationwide crackdown, smuggled bird's nest still end up on consumers' plates.
Illegal exporters revealed that they smuggled the food into China along with shipments of other goods through ports in Guangdong and Fujian provinces and Shanghai.
Their agents retrieve the goods at the ports and courier them to buyers to evade inspections by watchdogs.
"There will be no certificate of health for these bird's nest. Not having to obtain certification from both the Malaysian and Chinese authorities has saved us a lot of money and work," said a Malaysian bird's nest producer.
While consumers no longer can buy bird's nest from retailers, it is still available online or directly from dealers.
"The red cubilose episode will help boost sales of the white bird's nest which I am selling," said Y.M. Sim who sells cubilose online.
Fuciphagus Agritech Sdn Bhd CEO Moh Chee Hong said it was business as usual for his company which has legal documentation to export bird's nest to China. But his business had slowed 20% due to product recall faced by his buyers.
"We encountered a case two weeks ago when 5kg of our bird's nest were denied entry at Xiamen because the Chinese Customs said they had updated their requirements for the nitrite level in bird's nest, despite our products having already met the Malaysian standard for export," he said.
"After discussions, they accepted our explanation and allowed our goods through."
Officials from the Malaysian Department of Veterinary Services (DVS) and several Malaysian exporters flew into Beijing on Friday to address the Chinese press on Malaysian bird's nest.
"When we speak about export, we refer to the figures from legal exports that go through the Malaysian authorities, including DVS, and Chinese Administration of Quality Supervision Inspection and Quarantine," DVS director-general Dr Abdul Aziz Jamaluddin said.
"We will harmonise the export and import procedures with our Chinese counterparts to put pressure on the illegal exporters."
On suspicions that some unscrupulous Malaysian businessmen were making fake red nest for the China market, he said the Malaysian police were investigating.
Malaysian bird's nest exports to China had surged from 1.44 tonnes in 2009 to 100 tonnes last year.