There's sulfur in your star anise!
Santang town in Nanning, capital of the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, known for its star anise market, an eight-horned plant indispensable as a condiment in Chinese cuisine, enters its peak supply time every August, with the largest local market, the Gaofeng market, delivering 300 metric tons of the spice every day.
However, according to a recent investigation by Beijing News, in order to shorten working hours and reduce costs, most producers at the Gaofeng market fumigate star anises with sulfur, and even wholesalers choose to purchase smoked star anise and then sell them to restaurants and canteens across the country.
According to insiders, 90 percent of star anise in the Gaofeng market and even at other wholesale markets are sulfur-smoked. The figure may not be 100 percent accurate, but the high proportion is enough to raise health concerns among people using such processed star anise.
As early as 2012, a well-known media outlet had reported that "it is a widely-adopted practice, and the Guangxi market sells fumigated star anise to domestic users and non-fumigated ones to foreign markets". It is really regrettable that eight years later such differential practice toward domestic and foreign markets has not changed.
Star anise is indispensable to Chinese cuisine, but at a time when health safety is a major concern, one wonders how businesses can be lax enough to let sulfur-fumigated star anises enter the market.
Smoking the star anise with sulfur not only reduces production time, but also cuts production cost by half. And lack of effective supervision by the authorities has led to the prevalence of this practice.
Sulfur-smoked star anise contains 16 times more sulfur dioxide than the prescribed national standard. Excessive intake can destroy people's digestive and respiratory tracts, triggering nausea, vomiting and other gastrointestinal ailments, while long-term excessive intake can lead to chronic poisoning.
It is therefore important for local authorities to plug existing loopholes to curb the practice.
What the authorities in Guangxi should do is to break the local protectionist mentality, abandon governance inertia, and rebuild a green, healthy star anise market.
Local departments should tighten supervision by strengthening sampling methods and extending regulatory tentacles to deal a severe blow to traders sulfur-fumigating their products by imposing fines. They should also strengthen information disclosure. Only by building a defensive line of supervision can the public regain "safety on the tip of the tongue".
If you have a specific expertise and would like to contribute to China Daily, please contact us at email@example.com , and firstname.lastname@example.org