Carcinogenic formaldehyde-preserved vegetables spark new wave of food safety concerns

Updated:Mon, May 7, 2012 09:09 AM   By Bernd Chang

Food safety,Food safety concerns

Chinese vegetable dealers admit that using formaldehyde to preserve vegetables has been practised for four years. The Chinese cabbage preserved with formaldehyde look fresher.

Recent reports exposing that some vegetable dealers in Shandong use a formaldehyde solution to keep vegetables fresh. That this kind of toxic vegetables can cause cancer if eaten too much sparks public anger and new wave of food safety concerns.


May 7, 2012, Jinan - Reports of toxic vegetables appeared on the web over the weekend, alleging that vegetable dealers in Qingzhou were spraying a formaldehyde solution on Chinese cabbage to keep the vegetables fresh during long rides to faraway markets. The reports has sparked public anger and prolonged the seemingly unending discussion on what, if anything, is safe to eat.

And it is even worse. Reporters found that using a formaldehyde solution is a popular, unspoken method for keeping vegetables fresh. This method of keeping vegetables fresh has been practised for at least three years and it is not limited to Qingzhou City.

Qingzhou is a leading Chinese cabbage production base, and vegetables grown there are mainly sold to areas in northern China and neighboring provinces on the country's east coast.

In the Dayuanzhuang village of Qingzhou City, spring Chinese cabbage is regarded as an important economic crop. Yin Lihua, a villager, expects he can harvest 15 tons of Chinese cabbage. He tells reporter that this year Chinese cabbage sells well this year. The price is 1.4RMB per kilogram while it was only 0.1 RMB last year.

Trucks line up along the greenhouses of Yin Lihua. "We grew little Chinese cabbage during the last severy years and only sold to Jinan, Shouguang City in the near. From last to this year, more farmers grow Chinese cabbage and more dealers from Beijing, Inner Mongonia, Henan, Hebei come to purchase cabbage. " Yin says.

"It's a common practice to keep the cabbages fresh," says Yin Lihua, "Otherwise, the vegetables stacked tightly in their trucks would rot in two to three days."

Meanwhile, police in Qingzhou have opened an investigation into the allegations as the reports on toxic vegetables continue to spread.

Zhao Mingli, a vegetable dealer from northeastern Heilongjiang province, was caught by police while spraying the chemical solution.

Zhao says he uses the chemical to keep the cabbage in good condition during a 10-hour journey to Langfang, a small city between Beijing and Tianjin. "Vegetable dealers in Langfang openly demand formaldehyde-treated cabbages because they sell more easily."

Has been practised for four years

Zhao also says the practice is not a new one. "I just did what everyone else was doing for three or four years. Vegetable dealers in other parts of Shandong and Hebei do the same."

He says he bought the chemical at a store in Langfang. "A big bottle, about 2.5 liters of solution, sells for only 7 yuan and can keep 20 tonnes of vegetables fresh."

Zhao is among dozens of vegetable dealers apprehended by police in Dongxia township.

The dealers admitted to having sold formaldehyde-preserved vegetables to many provinces, and many said they don't mind eating the tainted cabbage themselves. "You just do away with the first layer of leaves, cut the root and rinse well," Zhao said.

Formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen

Previous reports said the formaldehyde solution was also used on seafood and mushrooms.

Formaldehyde, used as a disinfectant and embalming fluid, was declared a known human carcinogen by the US National Toxicology Program last year. It is also a skin, eye and respiratory irritant.

It is still unclear how the toxin-using dealers should be penalized, as no such conditions exist in relevant laws and regulations, said Liu Shengtian, deputy chief of Qingzhou's agricultural bureau.

China's law on farm produce safety stipulates that the use of preservatives should "conform to relevant technical standards of the state," but fails to define what preservatives, or how much, are acceptable.

"It's crucial to fix these loopholes in order to better regulate market behaviors for public health considerations," said Zhao Jinshan, a Jinan-based specialist on food safety and disease control.


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