TIME Taiwan

‘Gutter Oil’ Scandal Raises Food-Safety Fears Once Again in Greater China

Travel Trip Hong Kong on a Budget
A man buys a cake from Maxim's Cakes in Mongkok, Hong Kong, in this file photo from Dec. 18, 2008 Kin Cheung—AP

Potentially harmful oil may have been used in pastries sold by popular bakery chain and also 7-Eleven

A Taiwanese food-safety scare has spread to Hong Kong with the revelation that the city’s biggest bakery chain, as well as branches of 7-Eleven and Starbucks, may have been selling pastries made with so-called gutter oil.

The Hong Kong–based South China Morning Post reports that the popular breakfast staple known as pineapple buns, offered in branches of Maxim’s Cakes and 7-Eleven, as well two specialty Starbucks outlets, could have been made with gutter oil — a potentially harmful blend of oil extracted from food waste, offal and the byproducts of tanneries.

The news once again puts the issue of food safety under the spotlight in a part of the world that has been bedeviled by everything from adulterated baby milk formula to exploding watermelons and even fake eggs.

The Post said that since August 2011 Maxim’s Cakes had bought 34 tons of oil from a Hong Kong importer, who in turn purchased it from Chang Guann, a major lard supplier based in Taiwan. The oil was used to make the bakery chain’s iconic pineapple buns — so called not because they contain pineapple but because of the distinctive shape of the sugar and biscuit crust baked onto the buns’ surface. All the items have now been recalled.

Police in Taiwan last week said that Chang Guann had purchased 243 tons of oil from a gutter oil ring in southern Taiwan since March. The Taiwanese lard giant — which says it was unaware that the oil was gutter oil — in turn sold 51,981 cartons of oil to hundreds of food companies around Asia, according to Taiwan’s Food and Drug Administration.

Authorities in Taiwan say that over a thousand Taiwanese companies have used oil supplied by Chang Guann to make a total of 139 different products. Local groceries across China pulled several Taiwanese brands of dumplings, sauces and noodles from their shelves over the weekend.

Many regional food suppliers and restaurants harbor reservations about the quality of food from China, where a series of recent scandals — including chicken feet marinated in hydrogen peroxide and the use of expired meat by one of the country’s top food suppliers — continues to unsettle consumers.

Still, Taiwan had boasted a better reputation.

“Bakeries from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore have done particularly well in China because of worries about locally produced food,” wrote the New York Times, in a Sept. 6 article about the Mid-Autumn Festival pastries known as moon cakes.

But in the wake of the Chang Guann scandal, revelers could be shunning Taiwanese moon cakes this year. Hong Kong health officials told Agence France-Presse that moon cakes sold around the city are undergoing checks.

Maxim’s has told the Hong Kong authorities its moon cakes were not made with contaminated oil, but lab tests are being carried out, the Post reports.

[SCMP]

TIME Research

Study: Pesticides Could Cause Unexpected Allergic Reactions

New regulations could stem the risk

Traces of antibiotic pesticides in fruits and vegetables may trigger unexpected allergic reactions for people with food allergies, according to a new study published in Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

“As far as we know, this is the first report that links an allergic reaction to fruits treated with antibiotic pesticides,” said lead study author Anne Des Roches in a press release.

The study looked at a patient who suffered from anaphylactic shock after eating a blueberry pie, despite not being allergic to any of the ingredients. After weeks of testing with both the patient and a sample of the pie, researchers concluded that the pesticide streptomycin, which is used in orchards, had triggered the reaction.

The use of such pesticides remains legal in the United States, though new Food and Drug Administration regulations may help address the issue, according to the study. The pesticides are illegal in some European countries, Roches said.

TIME China

In China, McDonald’s, KFC and Pizza Hut Probe Expired-Meat Supply

Controversies over food safety are a fact of life in China

Health officials have temporarily closed a Shanghai-based meat supplier after it was learned that the firm, which supplies products to major American fast-food restaurants throughout China, may have been selling expired chicken and beef.

Both McDonald’s and Yum! Brands — owner of KFC and Pizza Hut, with over 6,200 Chinese stores collectively — asked their restaurants on Sunday to abstain from selling meat provided by Shanghai Husi Food Co. after Dragon Television, a local news outfit, reported that the meat company’s employees were repackaging meat and extending its shelf life by a year. McDonald’s and Yum! have launched their own investigations.

Yum!’s sales have rebounded in recent months after a fit of bad publicity early last year, when a state television agency alleged that KFC — the largest restaurant chain in China — was selling chicken containing excessive amounts of antibiotics. Yum! insisted on the safety of its food and said it was working to improve its supply chain.

TIME Germs

You Asked: Is the 5-Second Rule Legit?

The Five Second Rule
Illustration by Peter Oumanski for TIME

When food hits the floor, some say you have 5 seconds to retrieve it before filth hitches a ride. Here’s what germ experts have to say about that

Donut down! You quickly grab your grub, certain you’ve satisfied the 5-second rule with time to spare. But is your fallen food safe to eat?

Past research shows roughly 70% of women would say yes, along with 56% of men, says Paul Dawson, a food scientist at Clemson University who has lab-tested the legitimacy of the 5-second rule. Unfortunately, snacking on stuff that has touched the ground is always a risky proposition, he says.

“I compare picking up dropped food and eating it to not wearing a seat belt,” Dawson says. You could drive a lifetime without wearing a safety belt and never have an accident, but that doesn’t mean you’re safe not wearing one, he explains.

Dawson and his team tested the time it takes harmful bacteria like salmonella to transfer from various surfaces—wood, tile, carpet—to either dry foods (bread) or moist ones (bologna).

Here’s what they found: The length of time food spends on the floor does increase the amount of bacteria that latches on. Also, specific food-floor combinations (especially moist food on tile) result in a greater transfer of germs. But regardless of the snack-surface specifics, a significant amount of unhealthful gunk jumps from the ground to your food pretty much instantaneously, Dawson explains.

“I stand by the zero-second rule,” he says. “If bacteria is present on the ground, it will be transferred to your food.”

Recently, biomedical scientist Anthony Hilton and colleagues at Aston University in the UK repeated Dawson’s experiment with different sickness-causing bacteria like E. coli and Staphylococcus aureus. The results didn’t change.

“The majority of bacteria transfer to the food immediately on impact,” Hilton says. “The quicker you pick up your food, the fewer bacteria will transfer.” But that doesn’t mean a speedy recovery of your fallen treat will keep you safe from germs, he adds.

What about food falling on other surfaces—like your desk at work? It all depends on whether illness-causing bacteria are present, Dawson says. According to a University of Arizona study, the average office desk harbors hundreds of times more germs than the average office toilet seat.

Consider yourself warned.

TIME Food Safety

Study: Food Trucks May Be Safer Than Restaurants

Food trucks gather at Nathan Phillips Square
Food trucks gather at Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto on April 2, 2014. Andrew Francis —Toronto Star/Getty Images

Food trucks in 7 cities performed better than or the same as restaurants on food safety inspection reports

Grabbing your lunch from a food truck may be a safer option than sitting down at a restaurant, according to a new study.

After examining over 260,000 food inspection reports, researchers from a public law interest firm in Virginia found that in each of the seven examined cities—Boston, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Louisville, Miami, Seattle and Washington, D.C.—food trucks performed better than or as well as restaurants.

In every city except Seattle, food trucks averaged fewer sanitation violations than restaurants. In Seattle, the number of violations for food trucks was also lower but was not statistically significant, which means that food trucks and restaurants performed approximately the same. The study, called “Street Eats, Safe Eats,” looked at cities where food trucks and restaurants are obliged to follow the same health guidelines.

“Street Eats, Safe Eats finds that in every city examined … food trucks and carts did as well as or better than restaurants,” the study says. “The results suggest that the notion that street food is unsafe is a myth.”

According to the firm, called Institute for Justice, routine inspections have been key in limiting the number of health violations among food trucks. The study discourages an implementation of stricter regulations for mobile vendors, such as limiting the time and places where food trucks may work, arguing that such rules do not make street food safer.

Vox suggests that the reason for the researchers’ findings may be that food trucks run smaller, more easily manageable kitchens than restaurants. In addition, the growing popularity of food trucks may be causing increased scrutiny of the way they make food, which in turn would lead to a favorable outcome for them, Vox says.

TIME Food Safety

Which Will Make You Sicker: Four Star V. Fast Food

Which type of restaurant do you think is safer?

Americans love to eat out. Every day, 44% of us have at least one meal at a restaurant. All that convenience of not cooking at home, however, has a price. In a recent report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), researchers found that 44% of foodborne illness outbreaks were tied to restaurants, compared to 24% that occurred at home. That means that you’re twice as likely to get food poisoning eating at a restaurant than you are at home.

But are some types of restaurants that are “safer” than others when it comes to avoiding illness? The CSPI report didn’t analyze outbreaks by restaurant type, says Sarah Klein, senior attorney for food safety at CSPI, but other data suggests that you shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that the greasy diner and drive-thru are more likely to make you sick than a fine-dining spot. “One of the things that gives nutritionists palpations is that we’ve said at CSPI: That McDonald’s [and other fast food restaurants] may be the safest places to eat out,” says Klein.

MORE: When the World’s Top Restaurant Serves Up a Bug

Unwelcome critters like roaches and rats can certainly carry nasty bugs (and it goes without saying they’re health department no-nos) but they may not always be as bad as, say, using the same cutting board for raw and cooked foods, which can spread salmonella and E. coli, or employees neglecting to wash their hands after they use the rest room, which can introduce E. coli into the kitchen. “There’s a difference between quality and safety,” says Klein. “Things that are likely to gross you out are not necessarily the things that are likely to put you in the hospital.”

And it’s entirely possible that these violations may be more likely to occur in medium-priced or higher end restaurants, just because kitchen staff handle food more than they do fast food chains. Most fast food arrives frozen, in pre-packaged units, and cooking units can’t be turned off until the meat inside reaches the proper temperature.

Large corporations also use their purchasing power to ensure that manufacturers follow strict sanitation practices and provide reliably safe products: If an order for millions of dollars is on the line, growers and food makers are more likely to pay attention to keeping contaminants out.

MORE: How To Stop The Superbugs

At higher-priced restaurants or local facilities run by a family, however, there are more opportunities for contaminants to sneak into food. “Things are cooked to order and there are a lot of handling steps that go into that process,” says Klein of non fast food restaurants. Fresh ingredients are also more prone to contamination by bacteria since they aren’t processed or treated in order to retain their natural flavor. Once in the kitchen, they have to be stored at the appropriate temperature and washed, chopped, or cooked properly as well.

In a 2008 report on food safety, CSPI revealed that there was little difference in health department inspection reports — those letter grades you see in the windows of restaurants in cities like New York and Los Angeles — among lower-priced restaurants and higher-priced ones, suggesting that paying more doesn’t necessarily equal a cleaner kitchen. And across all restaurant types, the most common health department violations involved unclean food surfaces, followed by improper storing temperatures for raw and cooked foods. The third most common violation? Employees not washing their hands after handling raw meat or using the restroom.

For clues on how clean a restaurant is, check online reviews from recent diners (if they report getting sick after eating there, take heed), check the bathrooms for cleanliness, and if your food seems undercooked, don’t be shy about sending it back. Food poisoning is a bad way to end a nice night out.

TIME Food and Beverage Industry

Doh! Government Proposal Could Make Beer Prices Soar

Getty Images

There’s a lot to hate about changes proposed by the FDA, which could push prices higher not only for beer, but for milk and meat as well. The new regulations are being bashed as wasteful and anti-recycling to boot.

For centuries, beer manufacturers and farmers have enjoyed a mutually beneficial arrangement, in which the barley and other spent grain that’s left over in the brewing process is sold or given to farmers to use as cheap feed for animals.

“I get free waste removal and he gets free feed — it doesn’t get any better than that,” Kyle Williams, owner and brewer at North Carolina’s Brevard Brewing Co., who works with the nearby Busybee Farm, explained in a recent (Hendersonville) Times-News story. “It’s a perfectly symbiotic relationship.”

This relationship is in jeopardy, however, due to changes proposed by the FDA that are part of the broader Food Safety Modernization Act. Brewers fear that if the proposal is approved, they would be required to dry and package spent grain before it’s shipped off to farmers as feed. The equipment needed and administrative hassles required to handle that extra step in the waste removal process would cost a bundle—as much as $13 million per brewing facility, Scott Mennen, vice president of brewery operations at Widmer Brothers Brewery in North Portland, Ore., told the Oregonian. “That would be cost prohibitive,” Mennen said. “Most brewers would have to put this material in a landfill.”

(MORE: That Craft Beer You’re Drinking Isn’t Craft Beer. Do You Care?)

The proposals, as well as the Food Safety Modernization Act in general, are obviously designed to protect consumers and make food safer. But no one has made much of a case indicating that using spent grain as feed is unsafe for animals or humans—an FDA spokesperson cited in the Oregonian piece couldn’t a single example in which the age-old practice has caused problems.

The Brewers Association declared the FDA proposal an “unwarranted burden for all brewers,” arguing that if the regulations would approved, costs would rise for brewers—and, inevitably, for drinkers who buy products made by those brewers—and that the changes would also be bad for the environment:

Brewers of all sizes must either adhere to new processes, testing requirements, recordkeeping and other regulatory requirements or send their spent grain to landfills, wasting a reliable food source for farm animals and triggering a significant economic and environmental cost.

Right behind brewers in the protest over the new regulations are farmers, who are potentially losing an inexpensive stream of feed for animals. The system of recycling a nearby brewer’s spent grain “saves me so much money in feed costs it’s incredible,” one small farmer in North Carolina, who uses the grain to feed cattle, pigs, and chickens, said to the Times-News. “If I couldn’t get the grain, it wouldn’t be justifiable for me to be in the hog business, because it keeps the cost down to where it’s affordable for me to feed them — that would be one more industry I would be out of.”

To recap, the new FDA proposal would raise the costs and complications in the of production process for beer brewers, and would also make it more expensive for farmers to feed animals, perhaps even to the point of putting some out of business. The proposal wasn’t created to address some specific safety problem, nor out of concern for the environment—in fact, approval of the new regulations could result in more waste at landfills, which is less than ideal for the environment.

(MORE: The Resurgence of Cheap Old-School Mass-Market Beer)

And horror of all horrors, your beer could wind up costing more down the line. Same thing for meat, dairy, and a wide range of products that originate at farms, as the rise in feed prices is a prime reason why there’s been such as steep rise in beef prices lately.

The FDA is currently reviewing the proposed rule changes, and it is including the overwhelmingly negative feedback it has received from brewers and farmers in this process. A revised proposal is expected sometime this summer.

UPDATE: The Beer Institute, the national trade organization for the American beer industry, understandably opposes the FDA proposals. A representative of the group reached out to TIME and released a statement explaining the Beer Institute “began a year ago with FDA and other industry groups to make sure the amended rule we expect this summer allows us to continue this practice of marketing spent grains in the safe, sanitary and swift manner that the industry has exhibited.” Chris Thorne, vice president of communications for the Beer Institute, also said, “The FDA has asked the Beer Institute to please make sure that brewers understand there is no requirement that spent grains be dried and pre-packaged.”

TIME Food Safety

Florida Family Hospitalized After Eating LSD-Laced Steak

171154555
Meat department in a supermarket Getty Images

The Tampa Police Department determined that a bottom round steak purchased from Walmart -- which prompted a family of four to be hospitalized -- was contaminated with LSD and is calling it an isolated incident

A family in Tampa, Florida consumed steak contaminated with the drug LSD, sending them all to the hospital, Tampa Police Department said Thursday.

Ronnie Morales, his girlfriend who was nine months pregnant, and her two girls aged seven and six were hospitalized Monday with a “mysterious illness” that caused the children to hallucinate. Hospital staff induced labor, but all four patients were released in good condition Wednesday, and the baby boy was healthy.

After investigating the food eaten by the family, the Tampa Police Department determined that a bottom round steak purchased from Walmart was contaminated with LSD. The police said results from toxicology samples of the victims will be available in three weeks.

The police, who said this is an isolated incident, are examining meat from the Walmart store and are still working to determine if a crime occurred.

TIME Food Safety

FDA: Avoid Eating Uncle Ben’s Infused Rice

Flavored rice has been linked to outbreaks of sickness across the country

Uncle Ben’s rice may be off the national menu for a while, as government officials investigate a series of illnesses associated with the popular brand’s Infused Rice.

A number of the Uncle Ben variations produced by Mars Foodservices of Greenville, Mississippi are being recalled, and the federal consumption watchdog, the Food and Drug Administration, warned Monday against eating the “infused” versions of the rice brand after three separate illness incidents across the country.

The “infused” flavors of rice are typically only bought for use by restaurants, schools, hospitals and other commercial establishments. But the FDA warned the products may be available online and at warehouse-type retailers.

In the most recent incident, 34 students and four teachers at three public schools in Katy, Texas reported burning, itching rashes, headaches and nausea for 30 to 90 minutes on Friday before the symptoms went away, the Food and Drug Administration said. The students had all eaten Uncle Ben’s Infused Rice Mexican Flavor.

On Dec. 4, Illinois authorities reported similar reactions among 25 students who had eaten Uncle Ben’s Infused Rice Product, and North Dakota authorities reported another similar incident when four people had reactions after eating the product.

Mars Foodservices is recalling Uncle Ben’s Infused Rice Roasted Chicken, Garlic & Butter, Mexican, Pilaf, Saffron, Cheese and Spanish flavors as a result of the incidents, and officials have warned people not to eat any of the company’s infused rice products sold in 5- and 25-pound bags.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser