Pasta bugs, plastic salt and ice cream bacteria: 2020’s top food scares in Hong Kong

Kanis Leung
·5-min read

While health became one of the top concerns in Hong Kong as it battled the Covid-19 pandemic, the consumer watchdog in 2020 also issued multiple warnings over harmful substances people might be ingesting and misleading nutritional information.

The Consumer Council found some dried pasta sold in the city contained insect fragments and pesticide residue, while various levels of metallic contaminants were discovered in certain canned fish products and salt.

Here are nine of the biggest food scares in Hong Kong from the past year.

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Consumers were advised to check the expiration date on pasta packaging and look for signs of mould or contamination before they buy. Photo: Dickson Lee
Consumers were advised to check the expiration date on pasta packaging and look for signs of mould or contamination before they buy. Photo: Dickson Lee

1. Pasta pests

The council studied 35 pasta products and found insect fragments, rodent hair and pesticide residue, as well as toxins from mould in some samples. It called on manufacturers to step up hygiene of the production process. One packet of instant macaroni, made by Nissin and packaged locally, contained 548 microscopic insect fragments, according to the council. More than two-thirds of the samples also carried pesticide residue and deoxynivalenol, a toxin produced by mould which frequently infects grain and can cause vomiting and diarrhoea if eaten in large amounts.

Pricey Himalayan rock salt was found to contain metal contaminates. Photo: Getty Images
Pricey Himalayan rock salt was found to contain metal contaminates. Photo: Getty Images

2. Substandard salt

The watchdog also warned residents about contaminants in salt. It tested 39 varieties, including sea salt, rock salt, table salt, iodised salt, lake salt and smoked salt, with the pricier stuff selling for HK$440 (US$57).

Twenty-five samples had at least one metallic contaminant, with two brands of rock salt containing metals exceeding international standards. The watchdog also found microplastics in sea salt involving four brands. As council chief executive Gilly Wong Fung-han warned, expensive does not always translate into assurances of safety.

3. Fishy find

A review of canned fish turned up some nasty surprises. The council tested 19 types of sardines, 20 types of tuna and seven kinds of dace fish, at prices ranging from HK$7.80 to HK$149 per can.

Nearly 90 per cent of the sardines contained cadmium, which can lead to chronic poisoning or irreversible kidney malfunction if you eat too much. According to Wong, traces of the various contaminants in canned fish had grown compared to when the watchdog conducted a similar study in 2004, largely due to pollution.

4. Cold exposure

While it is no secret that ice cream can contain high levels of sugar and fat, the council discovered two popular products exceeded the legal levels for bacterial count. Among 29 tested frozen treats, Mint Chocolate Premium Ice Cream from Appolo was found to have 58,000 bacteria per gram and 10 units of coliforms per gram. KFC’s Creamy Milk Choco Cookies Sundae carried a bacterial count of 15,000 per gram and 280 units of coliforms per gram. But frozen confectionery should not contain more than 50,000 bacteria per gram or more than 100 coliform bacteria per gram, the Centre for Food Safety said.

5. Crispy but risky

The watchdog warned residents stuck at home during the health crisis to avoid eating too many crisps or French fries, given their possibly high loads of fat and salt. Another risk to watch out for: some crisps and other potato-based snacks for sale in stores and restaurants across the city contain a cancer-causing agent in excess of European Union standards.

The Consumer Council found 90 per cent of 38 samples of energy bars qualified as “high sugar” foods under Centre for Food Safety standards. Photo: K. Y. Cheng
The Consumer Council found 90 per cent of 38 samples of energy bars qualified as “high sugar” foods under Centre for Food Safety standards. Photo: K. Y. Cheng

6. Heavy bars

While energy bars might seem like a safe choice for a nutritional snack, some products contained more fat or sugar than you want. The council found 90 per cent of 38 samples qualified as “high sugar” foods under Centre for Food Safety standards. An adult weighing 55kg (121 pounds) who consumes a single Cookie Dough bar from Pro Bar would need to walk for 90 minutes to burn off all the energy, warned the council’s research and testing committee vice-chairman, Lui Wing-cheong.

7. Ditch the sauce

The council studied 100 samples of siu mei – spit-roasted meat – and lo mei, another Chinese-style braised food in a special salty sauce called lo sui, and found more than 30 per cent were high in sodium. One meal from a Sheung Wan restaurant could deliver about 2,400mg of sodium, more than World Health Organization’s recommended daily intake. The council advises people to ask restaurant staff to skip the sauce when ordering the meaty items.

Six of 15 types of baby milk formula reviewed by the council had misleading labelling. Photo: Shutterstock
Six of 15 types of baby milk formula reviewed by the council had misleading labelling. Photo: Shutterstock

8. Misleading milk

Some producers of baby milk formula were found to be overstating the nutritional contents of their products, the watchdog warned, after determining six of 15 types of pre-packaged items it reviewed had discrepancies exceeding food labelling guidelines. Wyeth’s Illuma Infant Formula Milk Powder, the most expensive of the brands surveyed at HK$539 for 850 grams, was found to have 21.9 per cent less vitamin A than stated. The council called upon manufacturers to improve their quality control and review their production process to ensure their labels were accurate.

9. Poorly handled perishables

The watchdog also examined grocery deliveries and found customers had received melted sorbet, thawed frozen meat and blackened bananas. Out of 25 orders of frozen and perishable foods made by the council, 24 were not sent at the required temperature. The council reported that the number of complaints about unsatisfactory online grocery services surged in the first 11 months of the year, more than doubling to 952 cases.

Which stories mattered most to you in 2020? Find out with our Year In Review 2020 retrospective

This article Pasta bugs, plastic salt and ice cream bacteria: 2020’s top food scares in Hong Kong first appeared on South China Morning Post

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