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Caution for Meatball Lovers — 45 Samples High in Sodium Pig DNA Found in 60% Beef Balls and Beef Tendon Balls Crustacean DNA Absent from All Lobster Balls

  • 2022.01.17

Assorted meatballs are a favourite ingredient often used in Hong Kong-style hot pot and barbecue, whereas soup noodles with various types of meatballs are an efficient and popular lunch option for workers on-the-go. However, in the Consumer Council’s recent test on 60 samples of prepackaged and non-prepackaged meatballs, covering 5 categories, it was found that 75% (45 samples) of the meatballs were “high-sodium” foods, amongst which the fish ball samples were detected with the highest average sodium content. Taking a bowl of rice noodles with fish balls (5 pieces) as an example, consumption of the fish balls alone would incur a sodium intake (around 819mg) tantamount to 41% of the daily limit (2,000mg) recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO). The Council reminds consumers to consume meatballs in moderation, control the portion to avoid excessive intake of sodium and consequent health risks.

The Council also conducted DNA tests on the meatballs for the first time. All 10 samples of lobster balls were not detected with crustacean DNA, including a sample which listed lobster in the ingredients list. The test also found that 60% (12 samples) of the beef balls or beef tendon balls contained swine (pig) DNA, amongst which 2 samples’ ratio of pig DNA even exceeded 50%. People with religious dietary restrictions should pay heed to the meat ingredients when purchasing meatballs. The Council urges traders to enhance the transparency of the types and ratio of meat used in the production of meatballs, whereas the ingredients list on prepackaged meatballs should be reviewed to ensure its accuracy, as it is a fundamental consumer right to be informed.

The test covered a total of 60 meatball samples, of which 24 were prepackaged and 36 were non-prepackaged, including 20 beef meatballs (beef balls and beef tendon balls respectively), 10 gong wan (meaning “pounded meatballs”, a variety typically known to contain pork), 10 fish balls, 10 cuttlefish balls and 10 lobster balls. The price per 100g ranged from $6.2 to $28.4, amongst which the average price for lobster balls was the lowest ($8.0) and that for beef tendon balls was the highest ($18.7). Test items included DNA, heavy metals, preservatives, protein, fat and sodium content, etc.

All Lobster Balls Not Detected with Crustacean DNA

Some Beef Ball Samples Contained Pork or Chicken Content

It is reasonable for consumers to assume and interpret that meatballs should contain the type of meat or seafood as named. However, the Council performed animal DNA tests on the meatball samples based on their namesake meat and found that all lobster ball samples (10) were not detected with any crustacean DNA for lobsters, amongst which 1 sample of prepackaged lobster balls listed “lobster” in its ingredients list. Only 2 samples indicated that they were not made from real lobster by naming their products “lobster-flavoured meatballs” and “imitation lobster balls” respectively. The Council has referred the DNA test results to the Customs and Excise Department (C&ED) for reference and investigation into whether the samples are in violation of the Trade Descriptions Ordinance.

Amongst the 14 beef ball and 6 beef tendon ball samples tested, only 7 (3 beef balls and 4 beef tendon balls) were found to contain 100% cow DNA, 65% (13 samples) were detected to also contain pig DNA and/or chicken DNA, of which 8 samples even had a lower proportion of cow DNA as compared with pig and chicken DNA. The beef ball sample with the highest ratio of pig DNA was found to contain 57% pig and 43% cow DNA; while the beef ball sample with the lowest ratio of cow DNA only had 13% cow DNA with the remaining 86% belonging to chickens.

Out of the beef balls and beef tendon balls found to contain pork or chicken, 2 prepackaged samples did not declare pork or chicken in their ingredients lists. Consumers with religious food taboos or personal dietary needs should pay extra heed to avoid accidentally consuming certain types of meat.

Only 3 out of the 10 cuttlefish ball samples contained 100% cuttlefish DNA, while the remaining all carried squid DNA at ratios ranging from 55% to 100%, meaning that they were squid balls rather than cuttlefish balls. In addition, 3 samples of prepackaged cuttlefish balls stated fish meat, pork or pork fat in their ingredients lists.

Amongst the 10 gong wan samples, half were found to purely contain pork DNA, while the other half was detected with chicken DNA, the highest one being 55%. While fish DNA was found in all 10 fish ball samples, 9 samples carried the DNA of more than 1 species of fish, amongst which 3 samples had 10 species or more. 1 sample of prepackaged fried fish balls claimed to contain threadfin bream, yet the test results revealed that the sample did not contain the DNA of this species.

45 Samples were “High-sodium”, 6 Samples were “High-fat”

The sodium content per 100g of the 60 meatball samples ranged from 366mg to 1,260mg, amongst which 75% (45 samples) reached the level of “high-sodium” food (i.e. over 600mg sodium content per 100g solid food sample) defined by the Centre for Food Safety (CFS). Upon comparing the average sodium content amongst the 5 meatball types, gong wan was the lowest (568mg), while the remaining 4 types of meatballs were all “high-sodium” foods, of which fish balls had the highest sodium content (814mg), while that for lobster, beef and cuttlefish balls ranged from 654mg to 794mg.

The sample of fish balls with the highest sodium content per 100g contained 1,260mg sodium, translating to a 163.8mg sodium intake upon consuming 1 piece (around 13g). Based on this, when consuming a bowl of rice noodles with 5 fish balls, the fish balls alone would incur a sodium intake of 819mg, amounting to 41% of the daily limit (2,000mg) recommended by the WHO. Referencing information from the Council’s previous test reports on Asian flavoured soup noodles, the sodium content of the soup base is estimated to be 1,080mg (an average of 360mg/100g). If an individual completely eats all the fish balls, rice noodles and even the soup base, this meal would amount to a total sodium intake of around 2,013mg, exceeding the daily intake limit for adults.

The average total fat content amongst the 5 meatball types was also a subject of concern. Based on per 100g sample, gong wan was detected with the highest average total fat content (19.4g), while that for lobster balls was the lowest (1.9g). The total fat content also vastly varied between samples, ranging from not found to 27.6g per 100g. 6 samples (4 gong wan and 2 beef balls) reached “high-fat” levels (over 20g total fat content per 100g sample). Taking for instance the gong wan sample with the highest total fat content, consumption of 1 piece (26.7g) would incur a fat intake of 7.4g, meaning that a quarter of the meatball is composed of fat. If 5 pieces were consumed in one sitting, it would bring on a fat intake of 37g, equivalent to 55% of the WHO’s recommended daily intake limit (67g) for adults.

Samples detected with heavy metal contamination were mostly seafood-type meatballs. 15 out of the 30 seafood-type meatballs were detected with mercury or methylmercury. The fish ball sample with the highest level of methylmercury at 0.26mg/kg was considered not in compliance with the relevant regulations by the CFS after investigation. 3 cuttlefish ball samples were even detected with both mercury and cadmium. As methylmercury has negative impacts on the development of the fetal nervous system, expectant mothers should pay extra heed.

Test results also revealed that 9 meatball samples were detected with the preservatives sorbic acid, benzoic acid or sodium nitrite respectively. 4 of these samples contained sorbic acid, the highest amount detected being 303mg/kg in 1 sample of beef balls. As sorbic acid is not allowed to be used in beef balls according to the Preservatives in Food Regulations, the Council has referred the test results to the CFS for follow-up action.

The Council reminds consumers that, as reflected by the test results, many meatballs are “high-sodium” foods, while some are simultaneously high in fat. Unrestrained consumption may result in excessive intake of fat and sodium, increasing the risks of heart disease and high blood pressure. Taking hot pot as an example, a favourite amongst Hong Kong people, if an adult consumes 2 pieces of each type of meatballs in this test, it would incur a fat intake of 18.1g, tantamount to around 27% of the maximum daily intake limit recommended by the WHO; as well as a sodium intake of around 1,438mg, which, added to the sodium intake of around 356mg from the dipping sauce, would have reached around 90% of the WHO’s recommended maximum daily intake limit. As hot pot often includes other fat-containing or high-sodium ingredients, such as sliced beef, sausages, and other seasonings, consumers must be mindful of controlling the consumption portion while enjoying delicacies.

When consuming meatballs, pay heed to the following:

  • Consume meatballs in moderation to avoid excessive intake of sodium or fat;
  • As meatballs from the seafood category general have a higher tendency of heavy metal contamination, consumers should be mindful of the intake amount, whereas expectant mothers and those trying to conceive should pay extra heed;
  • The DNA test revealed that aside from the declared types of meat, some meatballs might have mixed in other types of meat. Individuals with religious dietary restrictions should be extra cautious when making a selection;
  • When purchasing prepackaged meatballs, study the ingredients list on the packaging to understand the contents.


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