Borax (sodium borate, sodium tetraborate, or disodium tetraborate) is the household name for the important boron compound, mineral, and salt of boric acid. Sold commercially for the last 100+ years as a cleaning agent, borax is known as a naturally occurring mineral that is not harmful to the environment, doesn't cause cancer, accumulate in the body, or absorb through the skin. Studies suggest that this "do it all" cleaner and laundry detergent is one of the safer substances to use around the house, but is it safe enough to eat?
Borax and caviar were first introduced by accident. Traditionally, Russian caviar producers would store their caviar in barrels and bury them underground for safe keeping. Little did they know that the soil around the Caspian Sea is rich with naturally occurring borax. As the mineral absorbed into the barrels, it acted as a preservative for the caviar and even added a slight bittersweet sugaring to the flavor. Producers soon discovered they could use less salt but keep the eggs just as fresh by only adding a small amount of concentrated borax to the caviar.
Today, borax is still sometimes used in caviar as a preservative in addition to the salt. It can allow for less salt to be used in processing and usually makes the eggs a little firmer, drier, and "a softer, sweeter finish" on the palate.
The EPA claims that ingesting Borax at levels above 4.0g/KG is proven to to be detrimental to the liver and kidneys, and prolonged consumption can have long-term, damaging effects. Studies from many countries, including the US, have linked the prolonged effects of ingesting this substance to cancer, yet borax can still be found on caviar all across the globe.
Caviar is the only food that is allowed to contain Borax as a preservative according to numerous government health agencies around the world. However, several countries do outlaw the use of Borax in their food completely.
In the USA, it is illegal to use any Borax when processing caviar. However, many US based importers believe that caviar is allowed to have trace amounts of the substance as long as it is produced in a Country that allows it. After doing some research on our own, we can say that is not exactly true.
We reached out to the Food and Drug Administration to get a clear and define look at the laws governing the use of Borax as a food preservative here in the United States:
What is the legal limit of Borax allowed to be used in caviar when importing caviar into the United States? Does the FDA doesn't actually test for Borax content of an imported caviar while it is being checked by customs? If so, does the FDA actively test every shipment or production of caviar imported into the US or produced in the US for any amount of Borax? Further, at what point (meaning how much would you need to ingest) does Borax become lethal?
FDA spokesperson, Jason Strachman-Miller, gave us this answer.
"The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) is the primary food and drug law of the United States (U.S.), which gives the Food and Drug Administration authority over food and food ingredients in interstate commerce. The FD&C Act requires that substances added to food must be (1) an approved food additive or color additive, (2) generally recognized as safe (GRAS) as determined by qualified experts for the intended conditions of use, (3) prior sanctioned for that use by FDA or the U.S. Department of Agriculture, or (4) fall into another category exempt under Section 201(s) of the FD&C Act.
Borax is not an approved food additive for use in caviar in the U.S. The FDA has not evaluated the safe use of borax as direct additive in caviar or any food, nor have we evaluated its GRAS status for use in caviar. There is no allowed amount of borax that may be used in caviar sold in U.S. interstate commerce, regardless of where it is produced.
Here are the FDA sampling guidelines, testing is not specific per contaminant."
Essentially, any food containing any borax additive is not safe for consumption, and is more or less illegal no matter where it comes from. If that is the case, why are there still companies selling caviar with borax within the USA?
The truth is that borax in caviar is the ultimate "grey area". With so little information available to the public about it, no one really knows this common cleaning agent might exist in their caviar, let alone that it is a banned substance.
It is illegal to sell food that contains borax because the FDA hasn't been able to evaluate it as a safe preservative, and until an amount safe for consumption is discovered it will remain a banned substance. However, neither the FDA nor any other agency tests caviar borax levels, which means there are possibly tons of illegally produced caviar flowing through the marketplace.
The only way to ensure your caviar doesn't contain potentially hazardous borax levels is to test it yourself. Since not everyone can identify the subtle flavor and texture changes between caviar with and without borax, sending the product to a private testing facility is the best way to ensure it was not preserved with borax. No average caviar consumer will waste their jar of caviar to have it tested for borax, so the responsibility of providing safe caviar is (and should be) up to the company selling it. Many companies either don't know or don't care that they are selling product with a banned food preservative, but Caviar Star has tested everything we offer to make sure our customers get only safe, borax free caviar.