It may be over a year before fans of the popular Taiwanese milk tea Chun Cui He can get their hands on a bottle here again.
The evaluation process for the use of a new food additive in Singapore generally takes one to six months after it receives a complete application, while the legal process to allow it can take another six to 12 months, the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) told The Straits Times.
Its response came a day after it announced a recall of the milk tea for containing L-theanine, a non-permitted food additive. L-theanine, an amino acid found naturally in tea plants and fungi, is said to have calming properties. The AVA has said that it does not pose a food safety risk.
Taiwanese food company Bifido, which produces the milk tea, told The Straits Times yesterday that it had submitted documents to the AVA to register L-theanine as a permitted food additive.
When asked about this, the AVA said yesterday that it has received inquiries from an importer about the inclusion of L-theanine as an approved additive, and advised it to submit an application.
Applications are assessed based on whether the food additive is safe, recommendations on its use by international organisations, and regulatory approvals in other countries. If evaluated to be safe for use in food, the Food Regulations have to be amended to provide for the legal use of the new additive, the AVA said.
Chun Cui He milk tea was pulled from the shelves at all 7-Eleven stores on Monday, though the brand's other flavour, latte, remains on sale here.
Hong Kong's 7-Eleven chain followed suit on Tuesday, notifying its staff to remove the drink from shelves. By yesterday, all its 1,000 outlets across the city had ceased its sale, a 7-Eleven spokesman told The Straits Times.
"We stopped selling Chun Cui He milk tea after the Singapore Government banned it. It is to respond to the concerns expressed by our local customers as there is no clear guideline on the use of L-theanine in Hong Kong.
"We are liaising with the supplier and Centre for Food Safety to clarify if such little amount of L-theanine in the drinks is safe for human consumption," the spokesman said.
The Straits Times understands that another convenience store chain, Circle K, has also pulled the drink from several of its stores in Hong Kong.
Professor William Chen, director of Nanyang Technological University's Food Science and Technology programme, said that a standard 200ml cup of black tea is reported to have roughly 24mg of L-theanine, while a cup of green tea contains about 8mg. L-theanine is naturally found in teas, but is not allowed as an additive here.
The Chun Cui He milk tea and latte drinks sparked a frenzy when they debuted at 7-Eleven convenience stores here last month, prompting the convenience store chain to set a limit of four bottles a customer.
The difficult-to-snag beverages, which have their own Facebook page to monitor where stock is available, also appeared on online marketplace Carousell at marked-up prices.
However, after the AVA's announcement on Tuesday, they disappeared, and remained unavailable yesterday.
A seller who goes by the username of fat-captain put up a notice saying that sales of the milk tea would cease until it is approved by the authorities, with full refunds offered to purchasers.
The seller, who declined to be named, told The Straits Times: "We are a kiasi (afraid to die) nation. Whenever there's an advice or warning announced to the public from the authorities, I think most people would rather play it safe."
Correction note: This article has been edited for clarity.