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Kuala Lumpur producers unhappy as Beijing clips their wings
Publication Date : 04-08-2012
Malaysian bird's nest producers are baulking at China's insistence that they start attaching radio-frequency identification device (RFID) tags to the delicacy to ensure food safety.
The tags - microchips installed by the Malaysian government at no cost to bird's nest farmers - allow importers to track the product along its entire supply chain back to the farm. They are part of a wider set of safety demands by a China worried about bird flu and contaminants such as nitrite.
But Malaysian producers say it would take too long to implement and would drive small producers out of business.
"There are millions of ringgit in stocks that are not being exported the longer we wait," said Tok Teng Sai, president of the Malaysian Federation of Bird's Nest Merchants.
Bird's nest is highly prized by the Chinese, who consume it in tonics and soups.
China is the world's biggest importer of bird's nest, consuming 90 per cent of Malaysia's 5 billion ringgit (US$1.6 billion) worth of the product each year.
A year ago, China stopped issuing import permits for Malaysian producers after it found more than 200 parts per million (ppm) of nitrite in the country's bird's nest samples. The permissible level according to the World Health Organisation is 34ppm.
The Malaysian Department of Veterinary Services dispatched a delegation to China, which agreed to a ceiling of 30ppm of nitrite, as one of the conditions for re-admitting the country's bird's nest products.
Nitrite is sometimes added to the product to make a red bird's nest, or "blood nest", which is more popular and expensive than the normal "white" bird's nest, because of a long-held but mistaken belief that it is more nutritious, said Tok.
Nitrites consumed in large quantities can cause cancer.
Before China's ban, only Indonesia exported more bird's nest than Malaysia.
Then last month, bird's nest producers in Malaysia found out about the identification tag requirement. Already hurting because of the nitrite scandal, they say it could take years for all 50,000 of Malaysia's bird's nest farms to comply with tagging and resume exports to China.
Tok said Malaysian bird's nest producers had agreed to China's condition of keeping nitrite levels below 30ppm but denied that their bird's nest products contained excessive nitrite to begin with.
"We produce raw and genuine bird's nest, which has a good reputation in the world market," he said.
Meanwhile, he said, Malaysian bird's nest farmers are stuck with stock and struggling to pay bank loans. "Some may have to close their businesses soon."
Kuala Lumpur and Beijing are drafting trade terms on exports of bird's nest products to China.
Datuk Seri Noh Omar, the Malaysian Minister of Agriculture and Agro-based Industry, declined to comment on the issue, citing ongoing negotiations.
Using RFID means a bird's nest product will be tagged from farm to processing plant to distributors and exporters.
This will help safeguard quality and safety and, most importantly, help control outbreaks of avian flu, a major health concern in China and Hong Kong.
Right now, only 2,259 of Malaysia's 50,000 bird's nest farms have products tagged with RFID. It will take 10 years to complete the job, according to data from the Department of Veterinary Services. There are 845 bird's nest farms in Perak, 402 in Pahang, 359 in Johor and 258 in Sarawak.
"It is not practical or fair for small players to have to wait so long," said John Chai, an exporter of bird's nest, based in Kulai, Johor.
He says he has had to look to the far smaller markets of Vietnam and Thailand to sell his products.