Keep the corpse-preserver out of our food

The Nation March 13, 2014 1:00 am


Consumers need to learn some basic facts to guard against formalin, and authorities need to crack down on this longstanding practice

Most consumers will have been shocked by the news that fresh food and meat sold at markets and at several northeastern-style hot-pot shops was laced with formalin. The chemical poses a risk to health and its use in food has been prohibited.

Department of Health tests on food sold at markets in several provinces found much of it was contaminated with formalin. In some cases as many as 59 per cent of collected samples were found to contain the chemical. The contaminated foods included shrimp, squid and vegetables. Separate tests by the Food and Drug Administration found that 20 per cent of meat sampled at hot-pot shops was contaminated with a substance often used to preserve human corpses before cremation or burial.

Formalin is a strong solution of formaldehyde in liquid form, commonly used as a disinfectant or an embalming agent. But it also used illegally to preserve vegetables, fruits, meats and seafood. As such, formalin contamination has long been a major problem for Thailand’s food industry.

Formalin is toxic and a potentially lethal carcinogen. People who ingest food laced with the preservative can experience irritation of the eyes, nose and throat, coughing, skin rashes, headaches, dizziness, nausea, vomiting and nosebleeds. Those who deal directly with formalin, such as vendors and workers at food shops, also risk health problems, ranging from eye and respiratory irritation to serious breathing difficulties, lung inflammation and pulmonary congestion.

The problem of foods being illegally contaminated with toxic substances such as formalin and boraxis is not a new one for Thai consumers. The question is why it has persisted for so long and why so many vendors opt to use such poisonous ingredients. The answer lies in three interrelated factors: the greed and dishonesty of vendors, a lack of action from law enforcers and the authorities, and widespread ignorance of the threat among consumers.

Consumers need to educate themselves about the contamination problem and learn some basic facts to protect themselves. These include how to tell if fresh food is laced with formalin. Experts say it has a strong chemical smell that often causes irritation to the airways. As an extra precaution, consumers should always wash fresh food and vegetables properly or boil them on high heat to reduce the risk of toxicity.

Authorities can help educate the public about the health hazards and should be cracking down on its use in the food industry. Also needed is close monitoring of the import, sale and distribution of formalin and other toxic substances used to adulterate food.

Meanwhile, our law-enforcement officials must get tough with those found using such chemicals in the food they sell. People found guilty of selling contaminated food face a maximum of two years in prison and a fine of up to Bt20,000. These penalties might not deter all prospective offenders, but strict law enforcement will discourage many.