HONG KONG—More than 70 products that contain the unapproved natural sweetener stevioside have been withdrawn from the Hong Kong market. The move follows the removal of about 60 similar products from Singaporean retail outlets, where stevioside is banned.
A spokesperson for Hong Kong's Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) said the government authority ordered the products from shelves because "the safety of stevioside for human consumption has not yet been confirmed by the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA)," the international body that evaluates food safety standards in Hong Kong and many other countries.
"So far manufacturers and retailers have complied with our request and voluntarily recalled products containing stevioside," he said.
In the meantime, manufacturers have been given the opportunity to present evidence illustrating the extract's safety to the FEHD.
"We are studying these materials in detail and will keep in touch with the Hong Kong Stevioside Association," a FEHD spokesperson said.
James Osugi, president of Skyland International Group, a Hong Kong-based stevia plant cultivator and extract processor, said he was baffled by the decision because most of the products in question have been readily available in Hong Kong for many years with no adverse health reports related to the sweetener's consumption.
The ban was also discriminatory, he noted, because stevioside and other extracts derived from the Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni plant were used in thousands of foods, often without well-defined labelling.
"If Hong Kong and Singapore are intent on pulling out all products containing stevioside, they had better shut down every Korean and Japanese restaurant since there are probably more than a thousand foods being served that contain a stevia blend flavour or ingredient," Osugi said. "We are considering a judiciary review to get this ruling overturned."
Nearly all of the products under scrutiny are manufactured in Japan, where stevia extracts are widely used and approved for use as food ingredients. They make up approximately 40 per cent of the Japanese sweetener market. The extracts are also popular in North and South Korea and legally available in about 20 other countries, mainly Latin America, where the stevia plant has been used to sweeten foods for more than 1,500 years.
In Europe, approval has been denied on the grounds of insufficient evidence to support stevia's safety. The Scientific Committee for Foods concluded that the "extract has the potential to produce adverse effects in the male reproductive system that could affect fertility." It added that the extract may cause damage to DNA.
In the US, stevia extracts are not approved for use as sweeteners, but can be consumed as dietary supplements.
Rob McCaleb, president of the Herb Research Foundation, said the ban is unlikely to affect stevia's status there.
"If there was some credible science that showed stevia was in fact hazardous, I would be concerned, but I haven't seen any, which is why I find this ban so disconcerting," he said.