Lynne O’Donnell, AFP
Hong Kong: When Bangladeshi magistrate Rokon-ud-Dowla raided a local fish market to check on the quality of the food for sale, he was shocked by what he discovered.
“We found all 176 tonnes of fish in the market containing harmful formaldehydes,” he said.
“We also sealed off dozens of bakeries and confectionery shops for using textile and tannery dyes on sweets in a bid to make them colourful.”
Across Asia governments appear to be struggling to control the use of toxic chemicals in manufactured and fresh food, chemicals that experts believe are responsible for deteriorating public health.
Formaldehyde seems to be one of the most widely found chemicals, used for everything from keeping flies off fresh meat in wet markets to prolonging freshness and enhancing the colour of manufactured foodstuffs.
Boric and benzoic acid, industrial dyes, fertilisers and pesticides, antibiotics, bad oil and sulphur dioxide are among the substances found in fresh and packaged foodstuffs throughout Asia.
Experts across the region are beginning to blame a range of illnesses, including rising cancer rates, liver and kidney ailments, stunted mental and physical development in children — and, in extreme cases, death — on adulterated food.
“We have been eating these foods for decades. I think these foods are the reason why we have increasing numbers of liver and kidney ailments,” said Rokon-ud-Dowla. “These manufacturers are killing thousands of people, yet we didn’t notice.”
The March raid on the fish market was part of an official clamp down on what he called the rampant use of toxins in food.
“Use of chemicals, fertiliser, poor quality oil, textile and tannery dyes and food additives (such as) formaldehydes are being practised rampantly in Bangladesh, said Rokon-ud-Dowla, who has been at the forefront of the fight.
“Some of the practices that we have seen in their shops and factories are horrible,” he said.
Among the most notorious violators of food safety standards is China, where two companies were found this month to have added a lethal chemical, melamine, to wheat gluten and rice protein which was later used in pet food believed to have killed thousands of dogs and cats in the US.
In an effort to clean up the country’s reputation as an exporter of dodgy foodstuffs, authorities in Shanghai on Friday launched a mobile food testing van they said could quickly tell whether food was safe to eat.
The addition of dangerous substances to foods in China is chronic and widespread. The government’s apparent inability to police a huge and growing food-product sector and widespread ignorance of the harmful effects of many substances have combined with a rush for profit to create a major health threat.
Reports of farmers using dangerous pesticides and fertilisers to increase yields are routine, and livestock are often given questionable medicines or antibiotics.
In one recent case, Hong Kong and various local governments along China’s east coast banned sales of turbot produced in eastern China after some were found to contain cancer-causing residues. A similar problem is playing out in the US, where several states have banned imports of Chinese catfish after traces of a poisonous antibiotic were found.
Sometimes health risks are created for merely cosmetic reasons, as when Chinese producers last year used the cancer-causing dye Sudan Red, normally used for coloring solvents and shoe and floor polish, to colour duck egg yolks and chilli oil.
Perhaps the highest-profile recent case was in 2004, when 13 babies died in central China and nearly 200 suffered malnutrition after drinking milk made with fake powder.
Chinese chemicals have also made their way into the foodchain in Vietnam where authorities have become so alarmed at the prevalence of adulterated food that Professor Nguyen Ba Duc of the Vietnam Cancer Association has blamed one third of the 150,000 annual cancer cases on tainted food.
Government health inspectors have found formaldehyde in the national dish, pho noodle soup, borax in traditional cakes, and whitening chemicals in rice noodles.
In March, the health ministry’s drug administration ordered the nationwide confiscation of Chinese-made lipsticks, other cosmetics and foods containing Sudan Red. State media reported suspicions it was also used in eggs and chilli products.
Formaldehyde has also been problematic in Indonesia, where the Food and Drug Agency found that nearly 60% of noodles, salty fish, tofu and meatballs sold in Jakarta markets contained high levels of the preservative.
Producers had been hard hit by fuel price rises in late 2005 and so had cut back on more expensive ingredients in their foods, said Tulus Abadi, of the Indonesian Consumers Foundation.
Random checks of markets and street vendors in Jakarta this year found banned dangerous substances, including formaldehyde and sodium borate, were still being used, he said.
India’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare says the most common forms of food adulteration or excess preservatives concern cooking oil and milk, and in packaged foods that are now flooding the market.
While poor labelling was a major problem, widespread use of preservatives to keep food fresh as it is transported over long distances was also a concern.
Radna Krishnan, editor of the All India Food Preservers Association newsletter said: “Most of the focus is on preservatives because of transport difficulties in India and the most widely used are sulfur dioxide, a gas, for fruits and vegetables.”
The gas, important in wine making and processing of dried fruits, is used widely globally but when used in excess, can cause breathing and heart problems, according to the US Environmental Protection Administration.