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Tainted food is a problem in Asia

world Updated: Jun 18, 2007 04:40 IST

As Nguyen Van Ninh needles his chopsticks through a steaming bowl of Vietnam’s famous noodle soup, he knows it could be spiked with formaldehyde.

But the thought of slurping up the same chemical used to preserve corpses isn't enough to deter him.

“I think if we don’t see those chemicals being put in the food with our own eyes, then we can just smack our lips and pretend that there are no chemicals in the food,” he said, devouring a 30-cent bowl of “pho” on a busy Hanoi sidewalk. “Why worry about it?”

While the discovery of tainted imports from China has shocked Westerners, food safety has long been a problem in much of Asia, where enforcement is lax and food poisoning deaths are not unusual.

Hot weather, lack of refrigeration and demand for cheap street food drives vendors and producers to find inexpensive — and often dangerous — ways to preserve their products.

Formaldehyde has long been used to lengthen the shelf life of rice noodles and tofu in some Asian countries, even though it can cause liver, nerve and kidney damage. The chemical, often used in embalming, was found a few years ago in seven of 10 pho noodle factories in Hanoi.

Borax, found in everything from detergent to Fiberglas, is also commonly used to preserve fish and meats in Indonesia and elsewhere. Farmers often spray their produce with banned pesticides, such as DDT.

“The people who do this want to make money. And if they’re stupid and greedy, this is a bad combination,” said Gerald Moy, a food safety expert at the World Health Organisation in Geneva.

Fish containing pufferfish toxins, drug-laced frozen eel and juice spiked with harmful dyes were among other unsafe products shipped to the US.

Diethylene glycol, a sweet-tasting thickening agent also used in antifreeze, has been blamed for the deaths of at least 51 people in Panama after the chemical was imported from China and mixed into cough syrup and other

medicines.

The US Food and Drug Administration has halted all shipments of Chinese toothpaste to test for the same chemical reportedly found in tubes sold in Australia, the Dominican Republic and Panama.

In India, pesticides often taint groundwater and produce. Coca-Cola and Pepsi have been duelling with a New Delhi environmental group, which alleged it found unacceptable levels of pesticides in soft drinks.

Street food is another problem. Millions grab everything from chicken kebabs to rice porridge from unregulated food stalls where hygiene is often poor. Unsafe preservatives are sometimes added, and vendors typically use the cheapest oils and ingredients.

“Asking for food quality would be a luxury,” said Alex Hillebrand, chemical and food safety adviser at World Health Organisation’s regional office in New Delhi. “They’re hungry people.” No one knows the extent of chemical-laced food in Asia or how it will affect public health.

“It might be that you consume it today, but you don’t see any effects for 10 years,” said Peter Sousa Hoejskov, a food quality and safety officer at the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation in Thailand.