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Formaldehyde food scare in Indonesia Print E-mail

Formaldehyde food scare in Indonesia

It's used for everything from embalming bodies to manufacturing fertilisers and fungus killers.
Now the chemical formaldehyde is at the centre of massive food scare in Indonesia.

Authorities have raided street food stalls and restaurants after discovering that many were using formaldehyde as a preservative.

Prime targets of police and Jakarta Food and Drug Office inspectors are food carts and roadside street restaurants - or warungs - which peddle tofu, noodles and salted fish to the capital's hungry millions.

Police have also raided major supermarkets, including several outlets of the giant French Carrefour chain.

"We will arrest those who produce or sell formaldehyde-treated food," Jakarta Police chief General Firman Gani said.

Formaldehyde food myths pervade South-East Asian countries.

Foreign tourists and expat workers routinely regale one another with tales of formaldehyde-laced beers from the Philippines to Thailand and Vietnam as well as Indonesia.

But Jakarta's authorities are the first to confirm the corpse-preserving chemical is widely used by food vendors, warning that even in low doses it could cause burning in the eyes, nose and throat, as well as coughing and nausea.

In higher concentrations formaldehyde was capable of causing vomiting, kidney problems, coma and even death, doctors said.

Formaldehyde's widespread presence in street foods was discovered after sampling in 50 markets across Jakarta and Banten late last year, the Jakarta Food and Drug Office said.

Tests are now under way in other cities.

Amid a media outcry, Firman said police raids were aimed at getting the big food sellers and processors responsible, rather than small food traders.

"We will first question the traders to find out where they sourced the foodstuffs, then we will track down the producers," he promised.

Indonesia's parliament blamed the Ministry of Health for failing to properly monitor food standards.

But Health Minister Siti Fadilah Supari - already reeling from the ongoing bird flu crisis - pointed the finger at the Food and Drug Monitoring Agency.

Jakarta drug squad chief Carlo Tewu said officers had already arrested a 35-year old man for stockpiling 400 kilograms of formaldehyde at his East Jakarta house for sale to food sellers.

Horrified shoppers have been quick to drop fish and tofu from dinner tables.

"We're also scared to eat chicken, not because of bird flu but because there are rumours that chicken vendors also use formaldehyde to make the chicken appear fresh longer," a woman named Afrida told the Jakarta Post.

"I just don't want my husband and children to eat food contaminated with a chemical used to preserve corpses."

General Firman said any formaldehyde offenders faced fines and maximum 15-year jail terms if found guilty.

Source : Syndey Morning Herald, January 9, 2006

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