YAO Jianjun is a bachelor who lives alone. With little time, interest, or ability, he seldom cooks and often goes to a fast-food restaurant on Xincun Road in northwest Shanghai.
“I seldom use the restaurant chopsticks and instead I ask for the disposable ones since they look clean,” says the head of a local company’s security department, who’s in his 30s.
A lot of people would agree that it’s better not to use chopsticks in most restaurants and ask for disposable ones or take their own.
But a report this week raises the alarm about the safety of disposable chopsticks, many of them made from bamboo in factories in Anji County, Zhejiang Province.
The report by Shanghai Youth Daily said some factories making disposable chopsticks use sulphur to fumigate and kill mold and industrial hydrogen peroxide to bleach the sticks so they look white, clean and more attractive.
But after being “beautified,” the chopsticks are dumped on the floor and packed without sterilizing the sticks or plastic wrapping.
Lu Feng, an official from the Anji Quality and Technical Supervision Bureau, said that the factory price of a pair of disposable bamboo chopsticks is only 0.02 yuan (far less than 1 US cent), so they must be mass-produced efficiently to ensure profit; a factory’s daily yield can reach as much as 300,000 pairs.
“Facilities in the factories are poor and the workers haven’t received a good education before,” Lu told Shanghai Youth Daily. “Bamboo chopsticks are very likely to go moldy so that the factories use industrial sulfur dioxide (a toxic, pungent gas) and hydrogen peroxide to achieve a good appearance.”
Disposable chopsticks are widely used in the city’s small restaurants and snack stands. Few people know they are not as clean as they seem.
The county of Anji is known as the “hometown of bamboo” and its economy largely depends on bamboo crops. Since 2012, local bureau has inspected disposable chopsticks from more than 200 factories in Anji.
Nevertheless, the inspections usually focus on germs, not the amount of the sulfur and hydrogen peroxide used. Neither chemical is mentioned in the relevant Chinese national standards.
Lu said relevant regulations and laws should be more specific and should be enforced.
The factories making those questionable chopsticks have been closed down.
Many people are concerned, however, that some of those chopsticks have already made their way into Shanghai.
There are no specific plans yet to inspect disposable chopsticks in the city, according to officials from the Shanghai Food and Drug Administration. Industry observers and health experts expect the government to pay more attention to the issue since disposable chopsticks can be dangerous to health.
Disposable chopsticks are mostly exported from the small towns of neighboring provinces, says Jin Peihua, deputy secretary-general of the Shanghai Restaurants Association.
“It’s hard to distinguish the harmful chopsticks just by appearance. But people had better not choose the ones that look too white and perfectly smooth,” he says.
Jin recommends that diners take along their own chopsticks when eating at fast-food restaurants, food stalls and questionable eateries.
Although amounts used for manufacturing individual chopsticks are small, note that hydrogen peroxide is highly corrosive. In extreme cases, excessive and long-term exposure can lead to DNA damage.
Noxious sulfur dioxide, after prolonged exposure, can harm respiratory mucus membranes, the esophagus and stomach.
Disposable chopsticks are in high demand in carry-out restaurants and noodle shops, fast-food eateries and snack stands.
In June of 2010, the Ministry of Commerce called for curbing the use of disposable chopsticks; the move was also part of an energy-saving campaign.
On December 1, 2011, Shaanxi Province banned disposable chopsticks and fined restaurants (if caught) providing free disposable chopsticks as much as 2,000 yuan (US$3.22). Individuals, such as food stall owners, are fined from 50-200 yuan.
Shanghai should ban disposable chopsticks, according to Professor Zheng Shaohua, dean of the School of Law at the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics.
“It can protect people’s health, save inspection costs, and conserve natural resources” he told local media.
Many small restaurant owners, who have a slim margin of profit, are not enthusiastic about the proposal. Peter Wang, owner of a restaurant selling fried chicken and noodles in Fengxian District, says most of his customers are migrant workers and college students and many ask for disposable chopsticks.
If the chopsticks are banned, Wang says that he will have to spend more money to disinfect reusable chopsticks. He would have to buy a larger sterilizer and it would take his workers much more time.
Since Shanghai and other big cities are the main markets for Anji disposable chopsticks, a ban on them would have a significant impact on the county’s economy, said Lu, the provincial quality official.
“It would require the local government to explore and develop more sectors of the economy,” Lu added.