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Dec 31, 2007


How safe is the food on our shelves?

Experts tell P. SELVARANI and TAN CHOE CHOE some alarming facts about what we have been eating

Breakdown according to food type. To enlarge the chart, click here" border="1" height="198" width="72">
Breakdown according to food type. To enlarge the chart, click here
SOME 3,400 food items were deemed a health risk in Malaysia last year.

They included bread, milk, meat, fish, egg and egg products, confection, beverages, oil, sauces, salt and spices, vegetables and even fruits.

Most were found to contain microbiological contaminants or pathogens -- organisms that cause illnesses such as Salmonella typi, which can cause typhoid, and Staphylococcus aureus enterotoxin, which is the culprit in most cases of food poisoning.

Others had preservatives and dyes that were banned or above the permissible limits, pesticide residues and metal contaminants.
Cereal products and bread topped the list, followed by fish and fish products, fruits, and beverages such as tea and coffee.

This was found after the Consumers Association of Penang (CAP) sent out an alert that 82 per cent of the bread in the market had excessive sorbic acid.

"In the process, we also found contraventions like other excessive use of preservatives," said director of the Food Safety and Quality Division in the Health Ministry Dr Abdul Rahim Mohamad.

They were out of some 55,600 products sampled by the Health Ministry throughout the country.

Of these, 24,676 items valued at over RM2.3 million were seized; and 650 food manufacturers and importers were fined a total of RM858,000 for contravening food regulations.

"The number of contraventions has been more or less the same over the last few years. It has neither increased nor decreased drastically," said Rahim .

The number of food contraventions for the last three years total 11,659, averaging about 4,000 per year.

In the same period, 2,007 food manufacturers and importers had been taken to task by the ministry.

But the authorities don't find the figures worrying because, as Dr Rahim said, "the situation is under control".

However, some non-governmental groups like CAP think otherwise.

CAP, which has been carrying out independent random sampling of various food products since the 1970s, has been very vocal in criticising the authorities' lack of focus on food safety.

In August, it said in a statement that the use of boric acid -- a poisonous substance that can lead to gastrointestinal illness, kidney damage, dermatitis and loss of appetite -- was still rampantly used in the market.

Citing the results of its own sampling of several bak chang (steamed glutinous rice dumplings) bought from across the country, 20 out of 40 were found to contain the poisonous chemical.

Boric acid is prohibited under the Food Act 1983 and an offender can be fined up to RM5,000 or jailed up to two years.

The chemical is commonly used as a cleaning agent, flame retardant and antiseptic but unscrupulous traders have been using it to preserve the shelf life of fresh foods.

"The use of boric acid was first brought up to the ministry by CAP in February 1984," said CAP president S.M. Mohamed Idris.

"We called on the ministry then to pass a law prohibiting the sale of boric acid, restrict its sale by classifying it as a poison and impose a heavy penalty on anyone found to have violated it.

"The situation hasn't changed. After 23 years, we still find boric acid in food products."

He claimed that CAP conducted checks on foodstuff two to three times a year and "on every occasion, the presence of boric acid was detected".

The checks found the substance not only in bak chang but also in yellow noodles, fish balls, fish cake, koay teow, and some nyonya kuih.

"We had been informed previously that the sale of boric acid to the food industry was prohibited, yet food handlers still managed to get hold of this substance."

To enlarge chart, click here" border="0" height="690" width="350">
To enlarge chart, click here


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