Thirty-five restaurants across China have been found using opium poppies as a seasoning. Five are being prosecuted while the other 30 are under investigation. The restaurants range from Shanghai dumpling joints to noodle shops in southwestern Chongqing.
Even the popular Huda chain has been caught up in the scandal, with Hu Ling, the general manager, confirming to the Associated Press that several of its stores on the Beijing night life strip, known as Ghost Street, were under investigation saying it may have unknowingly sourced seasoning containing opiates. She declined to comment further.
It’s not clear how the opium entered the food; however this is not a new problem to China. There have been previous cases where chefs have tried to “hook” customers on their food.
In most cases cooks have been found sprinkling ground poppy powder (which contains low amounts of opiates such as morphine and codeine). It is unclear if it effectively gets a customer hooked or not, or whether it even delivers a noticeable high.
The adding of opium poppies to dishes violates China’s Food Safety Laws, which forbids businesses to sell food made with non-food materials or chemicals, except for food additives. Violations could result in fines or criminal penalties, according to the law, says the China Daily.
The administration has called on the local food and drug authorities to punish those who are involved, and to also cooperate with public security departments to find the sources of the poppies. It also requires that food and drug authorities intensify the supervision and inspection of restaurants that sell food such as hot pots, fried chicken, and noodles.
According to The Guardian:
Shaanxi provincial police busted a noodle seller in 2014 after being alerted by a failed drug test. Seven restaurants were closed in Ningxia province in 2012 for using the additive, and Guizhou province shut down 215 restaurants in 2004.
Luo Yunbo, a professor of food safety and nutrition at China Agricultural University, told China Daily that opium is a drug causing addiction, and serious harm to people’s health if overused. It is banned from use in food in China, although it is allowed in some countries.
“There are so many restaurants in China, and it is very difficult to effectively inspect every one of them to ensure they all follow the law,” he said.
According to ThePaper.cn, in 2014 a man, surnamed Qiu from Shanghai, was arrested for buying poppies and adding them to the crayfish and crab dishes he sold in his restaurants.
In every part of society, which includes regulators, the food industry and consumers play a part in improving food safety, Luo said.
“Overall food safety is closely linked to the development and education of a nation,” he said. “It requires a long period to improve food safety.”
According to a 2014 report by the official Xinhua news agency:
“Poppy powder, made from capsules and shells that contain higher opiate content than the seeds commonly seen on bagels, can be easily purchased in markets in western China for about $60 (£42) a kilogram. The additives are commonly mixed with chilli oil and powders, making detection difficult without laboratory equipment.”