In 2003, after decades of keeping family recipes locked away in subterranean vaults, Chinese brew masters were forced to reveal one of the secrets behind the long-lasting aftertaste Shanghaiist had come to expect from a bottle of Chinese beer: formaldehyde (甲醛 or jia quan). Once believed suitable only for embalming, it was clear that formaldehyde was as integral to Chinese swill as artificial berry flavoring is to Bacardi Breezers.
So when the Chinese Alcoholic Drinks Industry Association (CADIA) placed new restrictions on formaldehyde content in local brews, limiting parts per million (ppm) to 0.2, Chinese brews stood to lose that special something that left even the toughest hooligan (流氓 or liu mang) speechless after the tenth bottle. These measures were eventually adopted, despite the fact that “such additives can improve the colour of beer without affecting the flavour of hops,” as well as “help greatly shorten the production period, which, in turn, reduces costs and increases volume for brewers,” as China Daily’s HK Edition reported back in 2003.
These benefits aside, one obvious drawback of adding formaldehyde to any product remains painfully clear: formaldehyde is a known carcinogen. Regardless of the impact on beer prices or production, eliminating the presence of known carcinogenic substances from products made for consumption is an important cause — one that Shanghaiist believes should be strictly enforced.
In the wake of an exposé published by the Global Times this past week, which detailed that 95% of Chinese brew still contained significant amounts of formaldehyde — as much as 1.2 ppm (six times the stipulated level), authorities have again called into question the practices of Chinese breweries. This time around the impact could be much more severe, as the inquiry is no longer limited to the auspices of the CADIA, but has also been undertaken independently by the Korea Food and Drug Administration (KFDA). The Choshun Ilbo states:
The KFDA said Monday [10/06/2005] it decided to test Chinese beer imports for formaldehyde before allowing them to clear customs.
A KFDA official said there was no safe level for formaldehyde in Korea since the substance is banned for use in food. Authorities would have to establish a safe level first before collecting and destroying Chinese beer found to exceed the level.
This could have a significant impact on profits for Chinese breweries, given the fact that:
Korea imported a total of 3,200 tons of Chinese beer worth W1.3 billion (about US$1.3 million) this year, including beer marketed under Japanese brands but brewed in China.
The Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has also asked the Chinese government to look into the matter, as formaldehyde is banned from Japanese food and beverage under the Food Sanitation Law. This could also severely impact domestic brewers, as “Japan imported 1.77 million litres of Chinese beer in 2004, a more than 2.6-fold jump from five years ago,” according to the China Daily.
Will the revelation that Chinese breweries have been flaunting regulations to keep costs down and production booming result in a literal stop on exports? If so, the impact on the domestic brewing sector could be severe, but perhaps this is the only way to force domestic brewers to place human health above profit margin, as previous means to ensure this basic principle have obviously failed.
Is saving 15 RMB by reaching for a Reeb instead of a Heineken worth mortgaging your future well-being? That is up for you to decide. Until there are guarantees by the Chinese government, verified by independent agencies such as the KFDA, one thing is for certain: next time Shanghaiist reaches for a beer, it will be an import.
UPDATE: ‘No trouble brewing,’ beer industry insists (China Daily)
Chinese beer safe: quality watchdog (Xinhua)
Tsingtao Beer safe to drink: company (Xinhua)