Monday, July 24, 2017

Arresting the dangers of chemicals in food

Is our daily food safe?

A stall sells local food along Maharbandoola Park Street. Aung Myin Ye Zaw / The Myanmar TimesA stall sells local food along Maharbandoola Park Street. Aung Myin Ye Zaw / The Myanmar Times

Food is necessary for survival, an appropriate amount of food for sustenance that is, while excessive amounts are detrimental. As the Myanmar proverb goes “Tan hlin say, Lon hlin bay” (too much of anything is good for nothing), which is something we have been hearing since childhood.

But, in recent years, it appears that dangerous chemicals are invading everyday food making it impossible to eat well.

Twenty-three-year old Ma Cho Lay, who is thin and has a small frame with light brown skin, said that she could not afford to consider whether the food she was eating was safe or not.

Ma Cho Lay is from Kume city and has been working in Yangon for three years. That is why roadside shops are always her first resort and she relies mainly on them.

There are many people who moved to Yangon and work in Yangon for their livelihood and have to rely on roadside foods like Ma Cho Lay.

“For working class people like us who have no time to cook this is the best option as restaurants are too expensive,” she said

A list of 152 kinds of food from the market (for example jelly, sweet, roasted lablab beans, wafer and wheat noodle), 56 kinds of chili powder and spice, 27 kinds of edible oils as well as 73 kinds of purified drinking water have been announced by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration, Myanmar) as of poor quality and unsanitary from January 2013 to 2017.

It wasn’t very long before Ma Cho Lay realized that the food she had been eating everyday wasn’t safe.

She had frequently been suffering from stomach pain. Finally, when it became too painful to bear in March 2017, she was hospitalised and got an operation for appendicitis.

The surgeon showed her the chili seeds found in her stomach and urged her not eat too much chilies.

“I am not one who likes chili very much. I eat chili once in a blue moon. I thought it would be easily digestible. I was shocked at the sight of the chili seeds taken out from my belly. I was also surprised. Why did it happen to me? The doctor told me due to the chili, my appendix was swollen and I have stomach disease.” she said.

Eating chili with color and fungus can cause stomach ulcer and blood vomiting and can also damage the liver. So, one should be cautious. A prolonged period of eating Alfatoxin which is found in fungal peanuts and dried chili can damage human cells and it can lead to genetic change and liver cancer, say physicians.

When 400 brands from all chili and colouring powder were tested in the Myanmar market 60 percent was found to contain Alfatoxin, the FDA declared in late 2016. Chili powder brands which contain fungus were declared and FDA issued an instruction to collect them from the market and destroy them within one week. Many famous brands were among them, it is learnt.

“Alfatoxin is not obvious to the naked eye. It is mostly found in shorter chili (red chili) and dried chili. When water is sprinkled over these, Alfatoxin becomes more prolific. So when 391 brands were tested, over 60 percent were found to have Alfatoxin,” FDA Director General Dr Than Htut told The Myanmar Times.

Cooking oil, chili powder and food colouring are essential for traditional Myanmar fare. In spite of wide knowledge on the dangers of monosodium glutamate, people are still using it in dishes like nga-pi, nga-chauk and fish sauce. They also like Mohinga and Nangyi with rice noodles very much. They can’t stay away from Korean grilled items. All these contain chemicals and are not safe.

Despite shops being clean and their food suitable, we have seen unhealthy dyes, toxic fungus and chemicals included in basic ingredients such as oil, chili and food colouring powder used essentially in cooking.

Moreover, we have heard about formalin – a kind of chemical which is used to preserve dead bodies and meat – being used in rice noodles, wheat noodles and bean curd cake made from black gram and mung beans.

Foods containing formalin can cause vomiting, stomach-aches, unconsciousness and respiratory diseases as well as chronic cardiac disease, stomach, intestinal and kidney diseases and even cancer if consumed for many years, said officials from the Department of Health.

Access to clean water a challenge

Even water isn’t necessarily safe. In villages, people boil water before they drink it but in urban towns and cities, people rely only on bottled water for drinking.

In Yangon, most of the bottled water is being sold on handcarts. But you can’t be certain if the bottled water you buy from handcarts is really clean. Ma Pan Wai Thi from Hlaing township said she always feels insecure about bottled water.

“I am really worried that drinking water is unclean. We can’t know whether the drinking water which is being sold with home delivery is really suitable to drink or not, because we can’t see how the water is produced. Sometimes there is some dirt in the bottled water, when it happens, we ask them to replace it with another one at once. But we are living in an apartment building so there aren’t many options,” she said.

There are 1007 drinking water categories officially authorised by FDA throughout Myanmar. Some 249 categories are still being inspected and those which produce water that is totally unsuitable for drinking have been asked to shut down. At present, FDA has filed suits against six brands of drinking water.

Man can live without eating but can’t live without drinking water. Therefore, it is the highest risk for human health if drinking water is unclean. Dr Than Htut said the FDA will ensure stricter guidelines for drinking water factories on the grounds of public health.

“The companies that produce the drinking water complain as their businesses have been closed. We are not satisfied with our performance yet. We have to control many things. We will reduce [the risk factors] in drinking water up to the level that the regional countries can allow. We cannot relax our regulations. Drinking water that is unsafe poses a high risk. We can live without eating, but not without drinking water. Therefore, we cannot relax our regulations,” said Dr Than Htut decisively.

Why are chemicals used in food?

Department of Consumer Affairs in Yangon head U Myint Cho said this was done to make food last longer, grow bigger and grow in all seasons, the result of greedy businessmen who wanted quick results, putting consumers in danger.

“The State government imports palm oil for poor people. That oil can be eaten. It is not dangerous and the State allows it. Groundnut oil is also safe but it is expensive. Now, poor people do not eat palm oil. They eat the other oil with the flavour (smell) of groundnut oil. But in Myanmar, the people mix palm oil, sunflower oil, cotton seed oil and the oil used in industrial sectors and sell it under the name of groundnut oil. The worst thing is that they mix repeatedly-reused fried oil discarded by the restaurants,” he said.

Monitoring hazard levels in food

“Food products in Myanmar are harmful. We are facing the same level of food safety hazards as Cambodia, Laos and Indonesia. We are not any better, “ FDA director general Dr Than Htut remarked.

“Since we are born in this era, we have to avoid eating them (dangerous food) as much as we can; similarly we have to try to clean them as much as possible before consuming. We don’t have time to grow the crop by ourselves. I am afraid of the potential food hazards, but I will have nothing to eat if I am too choosy. Since all the food products are mixed, any one of them can contain harmful substances. If that happens, I may just die,” said Ma Cho Lay, a consumer affected by hazardous substances in food.

Translation by Win Thaw Tar, Zaw Nyunt, Zar Zar Soe, Khine Thazin Han, Kyaw Soe Htet and Swe Zin Moe


Poor lifestyle posing health risk?

It is an irrefutable fact that, as a consequence of the changing lifestyle of people, there are significantly more and more people suffering from diseases than before.

According to the WHO report, Myanmar has one of the highest cancer rates in the region. This is partly due to the consumption of unhealthy foods that are; too sweet, too salty, or too oily; and lack of physical exercise, the numbers of people dying with non-contagious diseases are almost two times more – precisely 59percent - than people suffering from other diseases.

Non-contagious diseases are: hypertension, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, and other chronic respiratory diseases. The WHO report stated that 90pc of the cause for cancer is linked to a person’s living style and habits.

In a developing Myanmar, according to a survey taken by WHO and the Ministry of Health and Sports in 2014, there are about 1.3 million people who are overweight. Obesity is another challenger in trying to stay healthy. The Nutrition Survey taken in 2009-2010, by the Myanmar government and UNICEF, showed that in Southeast Asian countries, Myanmar is the country with the highest rate of malnutrition. One out of three children is suffering from growth retardation due to malnutrition.

Is it protectable? Is it still weak?

In Myanmar, the FDA is the main authority responsible for checking food quality and safety. The government will amend four laws for food safety purposes.

There is an association, under the Ministry of Commerce, for resolving consumer disputes, and the Consumer Protection Law will be amended – which was implemented in March 2014 – is undergoing revision right now; so that, there can be more protection provided for the consumers when the law is approved at Hluttaw. The Health Department of YCDC has the YCDC law that appertains to food sold within the city areas. If harmful and unhygienic foods are produced and sold, punishment can range from a fine or imprisonment. In Myanmar, food violations are not dealt with by law; but rather, handled by putting notices in the newspaper, through confiscation of equipment, destruction of said foods, and educating the manufacturer and the seller; only these kinds of conducts are utilised, a government official told The Myanmar Times.

Regarding food safety, FDA has accelerated its operations by cooperating with related departments and organisations. However, there is still much to be done concerning FDA’s operations and public education, as there are still people who are unaware of FDA.

Some 10 housewives interviewed by The Myanmar Times said they were oblivious to the FDA announcements of food brands that were unsuitable for consumption, regulations on the brands of food products, and food safety operations conducted by FDA.

“I don’t know about the FDA here. When I was living abroad, there was an organisation which ensured food safety. I trusted products with their logo and signature. I’ve just found out that we have that kind of organisation here. However, I don’t know what they’ve announced as not suitable for consumption,” said Daw Hmwe Hmwe, who has lived abroad for 15 years before resettling in Myanmar two years ago.