Skeptics Corner – In Search Of Fake Eggs

Skeptics Corner – In Search Of Fake Eggs

Hunting Down The Keyser Söze Of Eggs

Daniel Liang looks at a familiar world in an unfamiliar way – through a skeptical lens. Every month he peeks under the hood of a meme, myth, bias, or news article. Disclaimer: the opinions expressed do not represent the magazine, advertisers, employer, or the local dairy council.

An Old Wives’ Tale?
If you’ve lived in China, chances are you’ve heard about fake eggs. This should surprise few, as almost everything is counterfeited in China. Is it an old wives’ tale or is it for real? Before I get to that, let’s start with a story.

I have lived in Dongguan since 2002. Having heard the fake egg story countless times, I had gleefully retold it to my friends. I also made the observation that it probably originated as a dare or challenge, since a lot of ingenuity is required to make a fake egg.

As a long time listener of the award-winning podcast Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, I was surprised when the host Dr. Novella mentioned a fake chicken egg industry in China. Not long after that, Rebecca Watson, one of the co-hosts of the podcast, was invited to speak at a “Skeptics in the Pub” event, right here in Dongguan. I decided to get some fake eggs and bring them to the event, as a surprise show-and-tell. After all, as the manufacturing capital of the world, where else would it be made but here?

I asked several people to get fake eggs at the local wet markets. Knowing that these are supposedly sold alongside or mixed in with real eggs, and not expecting truthful labeling, I asked them to buy the cheapest eggs possible, if all attempts failed.

What Makes A Fake Egg
In the end, I got a bag of eggs that were very cheap, and was told that they were “questionable” and “probably fake”. Upon careful examination, I could not immediately tell which ones were fake. When I Googled it (actually in China, Baidu), lots of results came up on “how to distinguish fake eggs from real ones”.  The points were roughly the same:

  1. The fake shell is shinier and rougher.
  2. A fake egg will have a noticeable sound when shaken.
  3. A real egg will have a faint smell/stink.
  4. A fake egg will have a duller sound when tapped lightly.
  5. The white and yolk of a fake egg, made of the same material, will quickly mix together once cracked open.
  6. When pan-frying a fake egg, the yolk will break by itself because the artificial sac membrane can’t withstand the heat.
  7. A real egg’s yolk will be powdery when cooked, a fake egg’s will be rubbery.

Putting the eggs to the test, nothing was obviously wrong except for a few that had a noticeable sound when shaken. The shells did not feel, smell, or sound any different when tapped.

A Scam Within A Scam
Perplexed, I decided to look at how fake eggs were made. Perhaps that would offer me some insight on how to tell them apart. To my delight, I found underground schools that teach people how to make fake eggs, and even YouTube videos. The yolk and white were made of the same material, and the yolk was dyed orange. Strangely enough, no one demonstrated how to make a seamless shell, which seemed like the most difficult part of the process. Making a shell without a parting line is not only difficult but expensive. As an engineer, I have always wondered how it was made, and this was disappointing.

After looking closely at the process, it simply didn’t make sense. Why would the white and yolk have different properties when cooked, if they are made of the same material? Why would the yolk and white mix only when cracked opened, but not in the shell? Why would nobody show how the shell is made?

That’s when it dawned on me. I had been searching for “how to tell a fake egg from a real one” and “how to make a fake egg”. Is it possible, that I had been begging the question all along, without first establishing that a “fake egg” exists?

I found a report of a government employee who wrote to then Premier Wen in 2008 about the fake eggs. He received an official reply 5 months later, stating that an extensive investigation in several provinces uncovered no fake eggs on the market. He subsequently posted an open reward of 1000 RMB, yet unclaimed, for a verifiable fake egg in the local newspaper. Anecdotally, I have not found anyone in China, expat or local, who has rigorously examined a fake egg.

After some further digging, it turns out that truth is stranger than fiction. Fake eggs are not the real scam. The real scam, ironically, is that scam schools are scamming prospective scammers, by promising to teach them how to make something that can’t be done.  The schools show how the yolk and white can be formed into an egg shaped gelatin, but claim the shell forming process happens overnight – giving them plenty of time to replace them with real eggs before the students return. It is a perfect crime with no recourse, and poetic justice for the scammers. As I realized that, my eyes rolled back so far I saw the back of my skull.

Where’s The Profit?
From a different perspective, would it make sense to counterfeit a low value, generic item that is fragile, tricky to make, and difficult to transport? Let’s perform a quick reality check. The counterfeit/adulteration industry typically targets:

  1. Branded items with high brand premium, such as luxury watches, designer bags, and footwear.
  2. Unbranded items with high market value, such as gold plated lead ingots, shark fin, bird’s nest (swiftlet spit), and sinensis (fungus on mummified larva).
  3. Items that can be adulterated easily, such as adding melamine to diluted milk, injecting meat with water, mixing waste oil into cooking oil.
  4. Intellectual property, such as music, software, books.

All of the above have very large profit margins, which is essential for an illegal activity. Eggs do not fall into any of these categories. At around 5 RMB/500g, it is virtually impossible to make a meaningful profit with the production method described. Counterfeiters are rarely deterred by law; however, they are rather demotivated by a lack of profit.

Keyser Söze Of Eggs
The entire fake egg story seems to be a “Keyser Söze”, a myth sold on fear, a meme that fits the narrative. It exists right on the edge of plausibility, seemingly tangible but just out of reach. The scam schools provide further embellishment, even if they were simply exploiting the situation opportunistically.

A quick look at the cost could have easily brought down the house of cards, without even considering the engineering challenges. However, I had blindly accepted it without examination, simply because it fit the narrative. I had wanted it to be true, and that alone was enough to obscure the warning flags. It is an example of how powerful our own biases can be, and despite being a skeptic, a humbling reminder of my own credulity.

So when it comes to eggs, my advice is, eat away. Don’t worry about eggs being fake; worry about salmonella instead.

点此阅读中文: Chinese (Simplified)

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