Monday, October 8, 2007

Fake Eggs from China

According to this email forward, large quantities of counterfeit chicken eggs are being manufactured in China and then sold in markets for around half the price of real eggs. The message claims that the fake eggs are created from a range of ingredients, including gelatin, benzoic acid, coagulating material, alum and "magic water". It also warns that eating the fake eggs could eventually cause dementia because of the alum used in their manufacture.

Versions of the story have been posted on various blogs and forums and have circulated via email for several years. The story gained even more attention after it was published on in May 2007. based the story on a report in the "Internet Journal of Toxicology". However, an article on the What Tian Has Learned blog discusses the story in depth and concludes that it is a hoax. A reader of the article contacted the editor of "Internet Journal of Toxicology", who replied that the original story, along with another dubious tale by the same author, were "published online by mistake" in the Journal and later removed.

The article links to an archived version of the original report, but it appears that the Internet Journal of Toxicology has used a robots.txt file to block the "Fake Eggs" story and other previously published articles from appearing in the Internet archive. An update to the Consumerist article acknowledges that the story may be a hoax.

Rumours about artificial eggs in China possibly originated from a 2004 Chinese news article. According to a (roughly translated) Xinhua News Agency article published on December 28 2004, a mobile street vendor sold a Handan resident an egg that turned out to be "man-made". Examination revealed that the fake egg was made from calcium carbonate, starch, resin, gelatin and other chemical products. The article includes a photograph supposedly showing one of the fake eggs along side a real egg. However, there is no way of telling from the photograph if one of the eggs is fake or not. Moreover, although I did locate a few vague and unsubstantiated references, I could find no other credible reports confirming such incidents.

Never the less, it cannot be ruled out that such an incident did occur as described. But even if it did happen, there is no evidence to suggest that making and selling artificial eggs in China is a widespread and well-documented practice that is so advanced that it even has fake egg production classes available. If true, it seems quite likely that such an interesting story would have garnered the attention of various news outlets around the world.

It should be noted that the egg described in the Xinhua News Agency article was quickly revealed as fake during cooking because the yolk and white ran together, the egg stayed very hard after boiling and it did not smell like a real egg. In contrast, the fake eggs described in later versions of the tale claim that they can be cooked like real eggs and even taste very much the same. It seems highly improbable that an "egg" made from a concoction of chemical substances, including alum, would taste and smell anything like a real egg.

Moreover, the method of fake egg production described seems quite labour-intensive. After factoring in the cost of ingredients and the time spent on production, it is difficult to believe that fake eggs could be profitably sold at half the price of real eggs. In general, the motivation for creating fake products for sale is that the fakes can be produced at a fraction of the cost of the genuine article, thereby generating an easy profit. In this case, such a profit seems unlikely.

Incidentally, alum does have food related uses, including hardening gelatin and is indeed dangerous, or even fatal, to humans if consumed in more than very small amounts. And aluminum has been linked to Alzheimer's disease.

Perhaps unscrupulous vendors in China have attempted to palm off fake, and probably inedible, eggs as the real thing from time to time. But claims about a well-organized and widespread fake egg market in China seem dubious. Of course, stories that seem too weird to be true sometimes do turn out to be based on fact after all. However, at least until more evidence is forthcoming, I'd be consuming this particular egg tale with a grain of salt.

How To Make A Counterfeit Egg, China Style
Hoax - Chinese Counterfeit Eggs
Artificial eggs into Handan (In Chinese)
Artificial eggs into Handan (Google Translation)
China, a Haven for Fake Goods
The facts about human health and aluminum in drinking water
Egg Piracy In China

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