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Formalin to antibiotics, our food is unsafe

Adulteration of fish isn’t the only by-product of lax implementation of food safety norms in the country. A related danger is the misuse of antibiotics to boost poultry production that can pose significant risks to human health.

editorials Updated: Aug 01, 2018 11:02 IST
Hindustan Times
Fishermen unload their catch from a boat, at Uzan Bazaar in Guwahati , July 13. The Assam government banned import and sale of fish from other states for a period of 10 days following tests on samples that showed the presence of cancer-causing chemical formalin. (PTI)

The discovery of formalin-laced fish at markets in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Goa has raised concerns about the efficacy of India’s food safety establishment. The most horrifying of these is the possibility that a chemical used to preserve dead bodies may have made its way into your food chain. A compound obtained by mixing water with formaldehyde, formalin is applied on fresh catch to embalm it and enhance its shelf life. Since long-time exposure to the chemical can be carcinogenic and can increase the risk of leukaemia, blood cancer and other lymphomas, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), the national food regulator, has banned the use of formalin in fish preservation.

The adulteration of fish isn’t the only by-product of the lax implementation of food safety norms in the country. A related danger is the misuse of antibiotics to boost poultry production which can pose significant risks to health. Antibiotic resistance enters the food chain through animals and crops and then moves on to the water cycle through ground water and drinking water.

Two weeks ago, after a number of states banned the import of fish from other states, the FSSAI and the Central Institute of Fisheries Technology (CIFT), Kochi, brought out guidelines to alert food testing laboratories, traders and buyers about the potential dangers of formalin. One of the safety recommendations is to use a rapid detection kit designed by the CIFT to check whether formalin has been used as an additive. The increasing resistance in food-producing animals and farm products also drives up antibiotic resistance in humans, making it difficult to treat common infections. Unfortunately, India does not have regulatory provisions for the use of anti-microbials in animals raised for domestic consumption.

Many other countries have taken the lead in this direction. Driven by consumer awareness, Sweden banned the use of antibiotics as growth promoters in the poultry industry as far back as 1986. India, too, adopted a National Action Plan on Anti-Microbial Resistance last year. With increasing demand for animal food products, antibiotic growth promotion in farm animals will keep soaring unless steps are taken to end the use of antibiotics for growth promotion.

First Published: Aug 01, 2018 11:00 IST