It looks like another bitter autumn for lovers of the famed Chinese hairy crab, now hitting its peak season, with mainland authorities still not allowing the delicacy to cross the border into Hong Kong, and many local restaurants taking it off their menus.
And on Monday local food bosses once again found crabs intended for sale in the city exceeding safe levels of potentially deadly chemicals.
The Centre for Food Safety tested 12 samples of hairy crab, including five from local sellers who claimed to have got them from the mainland, in probable contravention of the embargo.
It found one sample from Taoyuan in Taiwan with excessive levels of cancer-causing chemicals, namely dioxin and dioxin-like polychlorinated biphenyls.
Both are highly toxic chemical compounds that can cause cancer and damage the reproductive and immune systems, according to the centre.
The other 11 samples, including five brought from the mainland, three from Hokkaido in Japan, and three from Taichung in Taiwan, all tested safe.
“Dioxins come from industrial activities and volcanic eruption, existing in the environment naturally,” Dr Christine Wong Wang, assistant director for food surveillance and control at the centre, said.
“Humans are also exposed to it normally.”
She said the contaminated hairy crabs had not reached the market and urged local sellers to stop sourcing from the Taoyuan supplier.
As regards the mainland crabs in the city despite the export ban, the centre said it would not comment on their legality, and it was only concerned with what was on the local market. The Customs and Excise Department said it was monitoring crab sales and had “conducted an operation to combat illegal import of hairy crabs at the airport and other boundary control points”.
But the centre remained tight-lipped about when mainland supplies would be allowed to come to Hong Kong.
Since November last year, the mainland government has not allowed imports of hairy crab to Hong Kong. Back then, samples originating from two farms at Lake Tai in Jiangsu province recorded dioxin levels almost double the acceptable level.
Local retailers said Jiangsu crabs – catches from Lake Tai and Yangcheng in the province – were the most sought-after and were still missing from restaurant menus, as mainland supplies were still on hold.
Sandy Ki Yuk-fung, director of Old Sang Yang, one of Hong Kong’s biggest traders of the crabs, said: “I used to supply [mainland hairy crabs] to many restaurants. A lot of them have given up on such dishes this year.
“Do you expect them to wait forever?”
She said she did not expect the mainland to allow any supplies to the city this year, as October marked the start of the peak season for the dish, and it would be too late to import them in November.
Her company had in previous years imported about 10 tonnes of the crabs each week, for retail and wholesale. She estimated losses of up to HK$15 million this year.
But she said she refused to source from other places such as Japan and Taiwan, declaring the crabs there inferior to their mainland Chinese cousins.
“The taste is just incomparable,” she said. “If it was as good, they would have been on the market years ago, and not now as a substitute.”
Her fellow trader, Chu Ching-yin, has kept her business going by selling hairy crabs from a farm in Taichung.
Chu, who has been in the trade for three decades, said the high price of the Taiwanese imports, 40 per cent more expensive than those from the mainland, meant there was barely any profit to be made.
She added that a quarantine period imposed by Hong Kong authorities had made things worse.
She said: “Even though we have all the food safety documents, the crabs have to be stored away for nine to 10 days pending sample check results.
“They’re still good to eat, but not as fresh already [when released].”
She called on Hong Kong officials to better liaise with their mainland counterparts and work out a permanent solution to ensure steady supplies.