According to a statement by Malaysian health minister Datuk Seru Liow Tion Lai, China has recognized presence of natural nitrite in bird's nests and it will lift the ban on the products from Malaysia after determining a permissible standard.
“We agreed that there should be no nitrite additive in Malaysian bird's nest exports to China during the production process. But the Chinese authorities will allow the presence of natural nitrite in the product,” said Lai.
The latest move is fallout of the contamination scandal that broke in August when the Zhejiang Provincial Administration for Industry and Commerce said that it had found excessive amounts of nitrite in edible bird's nests in Zhejiang.
The watchdog, the quality regulator for Zhenjiang province, added that the tested cubilose (another name for edible bird's nests) was not locally produced, but imported from Malaysia, and it posed a threat to consumers' health in China.
The Chinese Ministry of Health had said in October that it had already begun research was being made into setting a national standard for chemicals in edible bird's nests, including how much of sodium nitrite the product can contain.
China has never had a standard for sodium nitrite in bird's nests, though ministry rules require one kg of smoked or cured meat to not contain more than 30 mg of sodium nitrite.
Edible bird's nests are made of the secretion from the saliva glands of birds, and have been used in soup in China for centuries, on the basis of belief in their health benefits.
They are the some of the most expensive food products in China, Hong Kong, and the US, where prices can reach up to US$10,000 per kg. Malaysia is the world's biggest exporter of bird's nests, and 95% of them are sold to China.
Malaysia has tightened safety standards
The Malaysian Health Ministry has since the scandal announced new regulation aimed increasing product safety, with the onus on owners of bird's nest processing units to register their businesses with the ministry before October 1.
Previously, such processing units were registered with local authorities but not the health ministry. Since October 1, any such unit not registered with the health ministry can be fined up to 10,000 ringgits (US$5,000) for the violation.
Also, all edible bird's nests exported to China from October 1 are now to be certified as safe by it and the Veterinary Services Department, the ministry said.
In addition to the registration requirements, these units are now required to implement a food safety assurance system, choosing from the Malaysia Food Safety Scheme (SK1M), Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) or Good Manufacturing Practice, all of which the ministry endorses.
If they fail to do so by the end if the year, they would be fined up to 10,000 ringgits, the health ministry said, adding that the free SK1M certification would be best for such units as it was designed to assist small and medium firms.