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Searching for Formaldehyde in Hong Kong

Hong Kong’s Center for Food Safety (CFS) recently went looking for formaldehyde in noodlefish, and found it.

CFS, a unit of the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department that serves the Special Administrative Region that governs Hong Kong, targeted formaldehyde in noodlefish in a recent targeted food surveillance exercise.

Results showed that one of the 10 samples taken contained formaldehyde at a level of 600 parts per million (PPM).  The test samples were collected from various retail outlets.

Noodlefish are a family of the Salangidae, of osmeriform fish, related to smelt found in the freshwater and coastal waters of Southeast Asia.

“The CFS believes that formaldehyde might have been added as a preservative after the fish were caught, or during transportation or storage,” a CFS spokesman said Friday.


“At the level of formaldehyde detected in the noodlefish sample, normal consumption is unlikely to pose adverse health effects. However, abdominal pain, vomiting and kidney problems cannot be ruled out for high consumers,” the spokesman added.

”The main health concern of formaldehyde is its cancer-causing potential risk through exposure via inhalation. According to the World Health Organization, there is not sufficient evidence to show that formaldehyde is carcinogenic through exposure through the oral route.”

The CFS called on the restaurants and retailers not to add formaldehyde to fish or other marine products.  Under the law, formaldehyde is not permitted for use as a food preservative.  Contravention of the law could lead to a maximum fine of $50,000 and six months’ imprisonment. 

The CFS spokesman said a warning letter was sent to the retailer involved.  The agency is  “collecting sufficient evidence for prosecution.”

The retail outlet has stopped selling noodlefish.  CFS says it will collect follow-up samples if the operator resumes selling noodlefish.

The CFS also advised the public to take note of the following precautions when buying or cooking marine products including noodlefish: 

Avoid buying noodlefish that is stiff as formaldehyde could stiffen flesh of fish;
  • Choose fish that are fresh and avoid those with an unusual smell; and

  • Wash and cook marine products thoroughly as formaldehyde can dissolve in water and dissipate upon heating. 

Hong Kong, a former British Colony,  is now a special administrative region of the People’s Republic of China.

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