Claim:  Cheap soy sauce is made from the hair of Chinese convicts.

UNPROVEN

WHAT’S TRUE: A 2004 CCTV segment claimed soy sauce was being manufactured from human hair in China.

WHAT’S FALSE/UNDETERMINED: The claim was proved in any manner other than individual statements, or the practice occurred anywhere other than a single factory.

Example: [Collected via e-mail, November 2015]

I have now heard from several people that they think cheap “fake” soy sauce is being made from the rendered hair clippings of Chinese convicts.

A quick web search turned up a ton of links to “natural food” sites, which automatically made me suspicious. Seems like B.S. but if was real, is it still happening, and what happened to the sauce?

http://www.naturalhealth365.com/soy_sauce.html/

The thai place around the corner uses the cheapest crap soy in the world, so if I should be avoiding the packets with the Devil Panda from Kariout.com for a reason other than the flavor, PLEASE let me know. The one time I tasted it reminded me of a line from Hitchhikers Guide TTG. “something that tasted almost, but not quite, entirely unlike” Soy Sauce. It might taste like a dead man’s tears, but I have no basis for comparison

Origins: In the west, fears of exotic or culturally unpalatable ingredients in Chinese  food have historically played out in urban legends, and  the concurrent global adoption of social media and a spate of negative food safety events in China has led to various warnings about crabs, pork, tilapia, chicken, and garlic exported from that country. Another long-circulating rumor holds that Chinese soy sauce (inexpensive varieties in particular) is formulated using human hair, hair taken from the country’s prison population in particular:

The article linked in the example field above was published in 2013 and maintained that:

The Internet Journal of Toxicology reported that the Chinese company Hongshuai Soy Sauce didn’t use amino acids derived from soy and wheat, but human hair, from barber shop floors, hospitals, and salons. Amino acids, in human hair, can be used to make a condiment with a flavor similar to that of the usual soy variety. How’s that for human engineering?

An investigation by a TV journalist exposed this manufacturing practice. The cheap soy sauce was being manufactured from an amino acid powder or syrup — bought from a manufacture in China’s Hubei Province — using human hair to make it. It makes me wonder about every food product coming out of China — including ‘organic’ labeled items.

While that article cited the Internet Journal of Toxicology, it didn’t include a link to material of that description in the publication mentioned. Online searches turned up (mostly dead) links to a 2005 article in that journal titled “Hair Soy Sauce: A Revolting Alternative to the Conventional,” a cached copy of which indicated that its claims were based on a Chinese state-run television news exposé:

In mid-January 2004, a team of journalists of the “Weekly Quality Report” program from the state-run China Central Television (CCTV) investigated the production of the Hongshuai Soy Sauce. The Chinese journalists went to the food seasoning manufacturer in Hubei province. They pretended to be buyers and enquired about the soy sauce ingredients. They were told by a manager that the soy sauce was made from the amino acid syrup, and mixed with water, sodium hydroxide, red sugar; hydrochloric acid and other chemical additives. They also learnt that the soy sauce manufacturer purchased at least a thousand tons of amino acid syrup (or powder — the dry form) per month from another manufacturer in producing few thousands tons of soy sauce. As a result of the preliminary investigation, the journalists decided to explore the source of amino acid syrup.

When asked how the amino acid syrup (or powder) was generated, the manufacturer replied that the powder was generated from human hair. Because the human hair was gathered from salons, barbershops and hospitals around the country, it was unhygienic and mixed with condoms, used hospital cottons, used menstrual cycle pads, used syringes, etc. After being filtered by the workers, the hair would then be cut small for processing into amino acid syrup. The technicians admitted that they would not consume the human-hair soy sauce because dirty and unhygienic hair was used to make the amino acid syrup. A quality monitoring staff also revealed that though the hair may not be toxic in itself, it definitely included bacteria and other micro-organisms.

Two things in the above-quoted excerpt were clearly problematic with respect to the rumor’s credibility. One was that it was based not upon research, but upon a broadcast news segment (historically not the most stringent source of factual information). Another was that the segment in question didn’t claim to be based on laboratory testing or other independent verification proving soy sauce was made from human hair regularly (or even rarely). Instead, the journal article sourced its claims from a television segment, and the original piece included no independent testing of the soy sauce in question. That piece also mentioned “fake soy sauce” that was not contaminated with human hair, and it noted that the practice of using human hair for such purposes had been banned:

In June 2004, the Hong Kong Customs and Excise Department found over two hundred bottles of faked soy sauce in the market. The manufacturers labelled the faked products under the most famous and popular local brand — the Pearl River Bridge. Although the faked products in this incident were not linked to the hair-made soy sauce, many consumers simply look for other alternative seasonings in order to minimize the risk of food poisoning. While some manufacturers have refused to halt the use of hair-generated amino acid syrups in producing soy sauce, the Chinese government has banned this kind of soy sauce production in response to the domestic and international media pressures.

A January 2004 South China Morning Post article also sourced from the same television report

prompted another article a few days later reporting that government officials had responded to rumors of the practice of using human hair for soy sauce production and ordered stricter inspections:

The Chinese government has shown an unusually high level of concern as a result of a bold media exposure towards a scandal in which human hair was used to make soy sauce. The government has now ordered an immediate inspection of all domestic food seasoning plants before the end of January.

All the material we located pertaining to soy sauce made from human hair in China traced back to a single television broadcast segment in early 2004. That report only involved one manufacturer, and relied on individual statements rather than laboratory testing to reach its conclusions. That report also bore many similarities to a globally popular 2007 CCTV segment about pork buns purportedly made with discarded cardboard, for which an independent journalist was subsequently detained and accused of faking the story.

Last updated: 13 November 2015

Originally published: 13 November 2015