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Cooking spice key player in bird flu battle
Updated: 2005-11-01 07:26

"To make pastis, Pernod Ricard adds anethol -- an essential oil extracted from star anise -- in a ratio of two to one thousand to liquorice, sage, lavender and other herbs of Provence."

"Meanwhile the Swiss Roche laboratories extract shikimic acid from the plant's woody part. This acid is a molecule needed to produce Tamiflu."

"Thirteen grams (0.46 ounces) of star anise are required to produce 10 Tamiflu capsules prescribed to treat a person contaminated with avian flu," Elgrissy explained.

But shikimic acid does not come cheap. The price varies between 200 and 250 dollars (166-207 euros) per kilogram, the equivalent of between 90 and 113 dollars per pound.

But for extra pure quality, the price soars to as high as 50 dollars a gram, the equivalent of 1,555 dollars an ounce, according to the website of Yusuf Hamied, head of Cipla, an Indian generic drugs manufacturer.

With its distinctive flavour, star anise has been closely linked for centuries with Asian cooking. Every year 30,000 tonnes of the fruit are used across the world for recipes for Vietnamese soup and pork Chinese-style.

China is the world's main producer of star anise, annually exporting 1,000 tonnes of anethol, the oil extract from the flower's dried pistil.

In the West, anethol is used in the manufacture of various consumer products including candies, biscuits, perfumes and hygiene products such as toothpaste and soap.

"The tobacco industry also uses star anise together with rum for example, to give texture and flavour to cigarettes," said Elgrissy.

Pernod Ricard uses 160 tonnes of anethol annually, making it one of France's major users of the product.

"For pastis we use star anise but sometimes also essential oil of fennel which also discharges an anise odour."

Elgrissy said fennel had served as an alternative to star anise "when the Chinese organised a star anise shortage in the 1970s to provoke a spectacular price rise."

In 2001, French authorities banned use of star anise in drugs and herb teas following reported cases of convulsion after infusions of herbal tea had been consumed.

Japanese star anise containing toxic alkaloids was later banned from being merchandised in any product in France.

But the pharmaceutical industry says it is satisfied that the Chinese version does not contain any such health risks.

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