China Consumer

Pots of controversy

Does a traditional herbal tea lead to gastric ulcers?

Pots of controversy

In the short life of Week in China, we have already written frequently about food safety.

WiC6 featured a three page Talking Point on the subject (‘Sick of bad food’), for instance, and WiC8 looked at the dilemma of celebrities endorsing dodgy foodstuffs and medicines. WiC12 wondered about the growing demand for Dequingyuan’s eggs – an organic variety attracting consumer interest in the light of wider egg-tainting scandals. In this issue (page 16) we also look at Sanlu, the food firm at the epicentre of virtually every debate on shoddy food quality.

But the latest furore is less about food quality than the potential health impact of a single ingredient.

To make matters worse it centres on one of China’s best loved products, and one which has even attained official status as part of the nation’s cultural heritage.

Wanglaoji is a kind of bitter herbal tea enjoyed by millions of Chinese at home and overseas. It is often drunk to cure sore throats and remedy the problem of ‘excessive internal heat’.

The tea’s history dates back to the 18th century when a man called Wang Zebang took his family to a mountain in search of refuge during an epidemic.

Here he encountered a monk who gave him a herbal tea to counter the effects of the widespread disease afflicting the region.

Wang later sought out the ingredients – and in probably an early case of Chinese reverse engineering– recreated the tea and opened a teashop to sell it.

Business has boomed ever since – or, at least, until last week.

The Chinese press reported that a man in Zhejiang province, who had been a devoted drinker of Wanglaoji herbal tea for many years, had developed a gastric ulcer. His doctor is blaming the condition on xiakucao, a key ingredient in the traditional tea.

Then on Monday, a deputy director of nutrition and food safety at the Chinese Centre of Disease Control and Prevention released a list of 87 edible Chinese medicines. As the China Daily notes, xiakucao was conspicuous by its absence, leading to further alarm amongst Wanglaoji consumers.

Defenders of the tea have been quick to refute the claims of its gastric side effects, with officials from Guangdong, the province which produces the bulk of Wanglaoji, especially insistent in denying that it is harmful.

“Wanglaoji and its ingredients are absolutely safe for human consumption,” says Zhang Junxiu, deputy director of the Food Association of Guangdong. “Millions of people in China and abroad drink Wanglaoji, but none of them have had any problems.”

In a hastily-arranged press conference, Zhang also highlighted that the Ministry of Health had agreed to add xiaokucao to its list of edible additives back in 2005. He added that to change the formula now would “ruin” Guangdong’s history and culture, and vowed not to ask tea-makers to do so.

Brave words. But the real test is in the consumer reaction. Battle-scarred from a stream of food safety scandals, some may be reluctant to take any chances. So sales volumes will be carefully monitored.

And for those readers who have an inkling that the product’s name sounds vaguely familiar, your memory is a sound one: we mentioned it last week, although in the slightly different context of mixing it with Scotch whisky.

Another drink that, if over-indulged, can lead to an ulcer or two.

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