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Hair Soy Sauce:
A Revolting Alternative to the Conventional

Alexander Tse-Yan Lee, B. H. Sci.; Dip. Prof. Counsel.; MAIPC; MACA
Queers Network Research
Hong Kong China


Citation:

Alexander Tse-Yan Lee: Hair Soy Sauce: A Revolting Alternative to the Conventional. The Internet Journal of Toxicology. 2005. Volume 2 Number 1.


Table of Contents

Abstract

Recent reports of problem foods in Mainland China have raised global concerns about the safety of Chinese food products. Drawing on reliable data extracted from Chinese newspapers, magazines and the Internet, this report, the second in the series, takes a closer look at the hair-made soy sauce, a common kitchen-accessory for marinating and seasoning foods. It seeks to inform the scientific and medical communities regarding the potential short- and long-term epidemic consequences of consuming such soy sauce.

The Soy Sauce – An Introduction

For over 1,800 years since the end of Zhou Dynasty (1027–777 B.C.), soy sauce has become one of the most widely used sauces in the world today ( 9 , 12 ). It comes with many varieties such as the mushroom dark, dark and light soy sauce from China; timari, shiro, koikuchi, usukuchi and saishikomi from Japan; ketjap manis from Indonesia; fruit-flavored soy sauce from Philippines; ganjang and doenjang from Korea and so on ( 10 , 11 ). Despite their particular characteristics and distinctive generating methods, all the soy sauces are produced in a similar process which can either be naturally brewed or non-brewed. Naturally brewed method is the oldest and the most conventional way of producing soy sauce, requiring many steps and taking days to complete the whole process. The non-brewed method involves the use of hydrochloric acid, active carbon, colouring and flavouring. It is much faster than the former in terms of production, but it lacks traditional characteristics ( 10 , 12 ).

Soy sauce is nowadays a universal seasoning accessory. It is used in almost all the Chinese dishes. It is also used in western cuisine such as stews, hamburgers, salads and desserts ( 9 ). Besides taste enhancement, soy sauce has its nutritional value. Not only does it contain protein and carbohydrates without fat content, but it is also rich in riboflavin and minerals (sodium, calcium, phosphorus, iron, selenium and even zinc) ( 12 ).

Soy sauce is so common that every year at least thousands of tons are consumed globally. It is against this background that a potential short- and long-term health risks may occur if soy sauce is not safely produced. This article addresses this issue by looking at the production of unsafe soy sauce in China today.

The Cheap Soy Sauce That Aroused the Public

In late 2003, there was an alternatively produced soy sauce named “Hongshuai Soy Sauce “ in China ( 14 ). The soy sauce was marketed as “blended using latest bioengineering technology” by a food seasoning manufacturer, suggesting that the soy sauce was not generated in a traditional way using soy and wheat ( 1 , 3 ).

The Hongshuai Soy Sauce was sold at a relatively low price in Mainland China and became very popular among the public. The people found its taste to be similar to other brands. Because of its low price, many catering services in schools and colleges decided to use this new product ( 1 ).

The Stunning Alternative to Soy – the Human Hair

In mid-January 2004, a team of journalists of the “Weekly Quality Report” program from the state-run China Central Television (CCTV) investigated the production of the Hongshuai Soy Sauce. The Chinese journalists went to the food seasoning manufacturer in Hubei province. They pretended to be buyers and enquired about the soy sauce ingredients. They were told by a manager that the soy sauce was made from the amino acid syrup, and mixed with water, sodium hydroxide, red sugar; hydrochloric acid and other chemical additives ( 1 , 2 , 3 ) (see lower part of chart 1). They also learnt that the soy sauce manufacturer purchased at least a thousand tons of amino acid syrup (or powder – the dry form) per month from another manufacturer in producing few thousands tons of soy sauce. As a result of the preliminary investigation, the journalists decided to explore the source of amino acid syrup ( 1 ).

Chart 1: The Overall Process of Producing Hair-Made Soy Sauce


The journalists then found the amino acid syrup manufacturer (a bioengineering company) in Hubei province. When asking how the amino acid syrup (or powder) was generated, the manufacturer replied that the powder was generated from human hair ( 1 , 2 , 3 ). Because the human hair was gathered from salon, barbershop and hospitals around the country, it was unhygienic and mixed with condom, used hospital cottons, used menstrual cycle pad, used syringe, etc (figure 1). After filtered by the workers, the hair would then cut small for being processed into amino acid syrup (chart 1) ( 1 ).

Figure 1: Workers are removing used cotton (circled) and other rubbishes from the hair prior to the processing of amino acid syrup (captioned from CCTV “Weekly Quality Report”) (14).


The technicians admitted that they would not consume the human-hair soy sauce because the dirty and unhygienic hair was used to make amino acid syrup ( 1, 2 ). A quality monitoring staff also revealed that though the hair may not be toxic itself, it definitely consisted of bacteria and other micro-organisms ( 1 ).

Toxic Consequences of The Hair and The Chemicals

The reason for the food seasoning manufacturer using human hair to generate amino acid syrup for making soy sauce is economic. Human hair is cheap and rich in protein content, similar to soybean, wheat and bran, which gives the soy sauce its characteristic favour ( 2 , 3 ). It was known that Japan had used the same technique to produce soy sauce during the Second World War when food was scarce. In times of food shortage, soybeans had to be consumed as food rather than being processed into soy sauce ( 3 ).

However, human hair contains different types of toxic chemicals ( 1 ). According to the “Weekly Quality Report”, the hair of unknown origin consists of arsenic and lead which, upon chronic exposure, will be potentially damaging to the gastrointestinal, renal, cardiovascular, nervous and reproductive systems ( 1 ).

In addition, the hair is probably mixed with various environmental pollutants. The hygienic status of hair is questionable since it was collected from hospitals and barbershops, suggesting that the hair may contain various bacteria rendering it unsuitable as a food material ( 1 ).

Furthermore, the chemicals used in extracting the amino acid from the hair are relatively toxic ( 1 ). The chemicals used during the generation of amino acid may release some carcinogenic by-products (in the air or in the syrup), which can increase the risk of cancer among workers and consumers ( 1 , 3 ). The chemicals used are also inappropriate as food additives because those chemicals are of industrial usage and its purity is often uncertain ( 1 ).

The Boycott Phenomena

Short after the release of the report, the media worldwide including Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Britain and the United States has complained about the problem soy sauce. The European Union has also refused the import of Chinese food products on numerous occasions for safety reasons ( 15 ). Faced with international pressure, the Chinese government has shown an unprecedented level of concern over the matter ( 2 ).

Indeed, faked soy sauce has been one of the main problem food products continuously clouding the food market in Hong Kong. In late 1998, the Hong Kong Customs and Excise Department has found over thirteen thousands bottles of faked soy sauce. Few months later, it confiscated a large number of faked soy sauce worth over HK$ 120,000. The confiscated goods were to be exported to Australia at the time ( 7 ).

In June 2004, the Hong Kong Customs and Excise Department found over two hundred bottles of faked soy sauce in the market. The manufacturers labelled the faked products under the most famous and popular local brand – the Pearl River Bridge ( 4 , 5 , 6 ). Although the faked products in this incident were not linked to the hair-made soy sauce, many consumers simply look for other alternative seasoning in order to minimize the risk of food poisoning.

The Hong Kong Food Council has put in enormous efforts educating the public to distinguish the faked products from the real ones based on the characteristics (taste, smell and colour) of conventional soy sauce. In addition, many soy sauce manufacturers have already changed the design of their bottles. But one cannot expect an ordinary consumer to be doing what food inspectors and soy sauce experts have been doing years ( 4 , 5 ). In fact, many consumers simply stop buying any soy sauce ( 5 ). Because of the severity of problem foods in China, many consumers in Hong Kong refuse to buy any food products from China ( 4 , 5 ).

Conclusion

Although the Chinese government has calmed the public by taking actions and enforcing food safety legislations ( 15 ), consumers in Hong Kong are still worried about the safety of food products from China. While the manufacturers refused to halt the use of hair-generated amino acid syrups in producing soy sauce, the Chinese government has banned this kind of soy sauce production in response to the domestic and international media pressures.

Acknowledgement

I want to thank Mr Raymond Yau and Ms Carmen Huen for helping me to gather data from the Internet and magazines, Dr. David J. Padula of the South Australian Research and Development Institution (SARDI) for ideas and insights, and Prof. Joseph Tse-Hei Lee of History Department at Pace University in New York for suggestions and comments.

Correspondence To

LEE, Alexander Tse-Yan (B. H. Sci.; Dip. Prof. Counsel.; MAIPC; MACA)
Queers Network Research
Contact Phone: +852 3643 9664; +852 9500 7628
Contact Fax: +852 2398 9060
qnr.alexander@gmail.com
F/F, 2/F, Lung Kee Building,
3 Poplar Street, Mongkok, Kowloon,
Hong Kong SAR, China.

References

1. China Central Television (CCTV). (2004). "Weekly Quality Report: Hair made soy sauce leave you hair standing. " January 15, 2004. CCTV. People's Republic of China.

2. Connell, R. (2004). "Chinese soy sauce from human hair leaves fatal aftertaste in Japan." Mainichi Daily News (Online), November 17, 2004. [mdn.mainchi.co.jp/waiwai/0411/11 ... ]

3. Anonymous. (2004). "Media exposure forces government to respond to hair-into-soy sauce scandal." January 12, 2004. Interfax. [www.interfax.com/com?id=5680503 ... ] .

4. Anonymous. (2004). "The Hong Kong Customs and Excise Department found faked Pearl River Bridge Soy Sauce from wholesaler. Faked soy sauce invaded the open market of Hong Kong." Apple Daily Online. June 3, 2004. [www.appedaily.atnext.com/]

5. Anonymous. (2004). "China News: Fake Pearl River Bridge soy sauce - housewife give-up goods produced from the Mainland China." June 3, 2004. Secret China News. [www.secretchina.com/] .

6. Anonymous. (2004). "Faked Pearl River Bridge soy sauce distribution network is discovered." Sina News Online. June 3, 2004. [news.sina.com.hk/cgi-bin/news/sh ... ] .

7. Anonymous. (2004). "Bad businessmen sell (retailing and wholesaling) the faked Pearl River Bridge soy sauce." Sina News Online. June 3, 2004. [news.sina.com.hk/cgi-bin/news/sh ... ] .

8. Zhenji Soy Sauce. (2004). "Origin of soy sauce." [www.zhenji.com.cn/en/nz5.htm ... ] .

9. Kikkoman Corporation. (2005). "Company profile: corporate overview (online source)." [www.kikkoman.com/company/com_ove ... ] .

10. Amot, S. (2002). "Soy sauce comes in many forms. Sauce Magazine Online." February 28, 2002. [saucecafe.com/article/5/42 ... ] .

11. Anonymous. (2004). Soy sauce. Wikipedia. [en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soy_sauce ... ] .

12. Ong, K. L.; Tan, S. A. & Toh, H. K. (2002). "Soy Sauce: a traditional Asian sauce now globalised." Singapore Polytechnic: School of Chemical and Life Science. [www.sp.edu.sg/projects/ tjournal ... ]

13. Fong, L. [??] (2004). "Dirty hair makes the Hongshuai Soy Sauce - the reality of soy sauce without QS sign". Tom.com Finance Online. [finance.tom.com/1015/1016/200415 ... ]

14. Pasden, J. (2004). "Soy sauce from human hair." 19 February, 2004. Sinosplice. [www.sinosplice.com/weblog/archiv ... ]

15. Bian, Y. M. (2004). "The challenges for food safety in China - current legislation is unable to protect consumers from the consequences of unscrupulous food production." Perspective Chinoises 53: 4-14.

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