Burger giant faces action in powder scare
Fast-food chain McDonald's may face prosecution if its ``Honey BBQ'' condiment contains a banned sweetener, the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department claims.
The burger giant has withdrawn Honey BBQ powder from its Hong Kong restaurants at the request of department officials after it was alleged the powder contained stevioside.
Posters at McDonald's restaurants said the powder, used in its ``Shake Shake'' promotion, was sold out.
Honey BBQ powder - eaten with french fries - was now being tested for stevioside, a government spokesman said.
The sale of products containing the artificial sweetener was banned in Hong Kong, he said.
Tests on the substance have been inconclusive, although some studies have found stevioside to be carcinogenic.
The spokesman said eating a small amount would not lead to illness.
He said food safety officials ordered the product to be withdrawn after local reporters noticed stevioside listed as an ingredient in the Honey BBQ powder and tipped off officials.
Department officials collected samples of the powder for testing from a McDonald's outlet in Admiralty.
It would consider prosecuting the chain if tests showed that the powder contained stevioside, the spokesman said.
The maximum penalty is a HK$50,000 fine and six months' jail.
The department will check other McDonald's outlets this week.
No one at McDonald's Hong Kong offices was available for comment yesterday.
Stevioside is 250-300 times sweeter than natural sugar, and its source, the stevia plant (Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni), is commonly used as a sweetener in South America and Asia.
Singapore recalled six foods containing the sweetener last March.
Research has suggested that the sweetener could lead to genetic and hormonal problems, emotional instability and erectile dysfunction.
Stevioside is termed an ``unsafe food additive'' by the United States Food and Drug Administration.
``Available toxicological information on stevia is inadequate to demonstrate its safety as a food additive or to affirm its status as `generally regarded as safe','' the administration says on its website.
Stevia and stevioside is also banned within the European Union. The United Kingdom's Food Standards Agency said a 1998 study found that stevioside ``has the potential to produce adverse effects in the male reproductive system that could affect fertility''.