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Fish Still Not Safe

State health ministry’s indifference to health concerns of Goan consumers

FRIDAY July 12 marked the first year of the triggering of health concerns with this newspaper’s expose on formalin found in fish brought from other states to Goa. Despite a string of promises the health department has failed to guarantee safe fish for Goans. The role of the health department and the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) in creating a safety screen for the fish that people consume has been casual and trader-friendly. Soon after an FDA team found formalin the fish simples tested by them from the fish trucks brought to Margao last year the FDA director ordered fresh tests which were declared to be negative for formalin. The FDA officials gave a report that formalin was within “permissible limits,” though there are no permissible limits for use of formalin for preservation of fish by the Food Safety Standards Authority of India (FSSAI). 

The FDA officer Iva Fernandes who revealed the finding of formalin traces became the villain of the piece and her career growth has been virtually blocked by the health minister and FDA director. Rather than appreciating her efforts in enforcing food safety standards, the government has filed cases against her. How can officers driven by public interest work? The government thereafter went to town claiming that fish was safe for human consumption. With its efforts to convince people about safety of fish proving ineffective the government made a big promise of setting up a state of the art laboratory which is nowhere in sight. The government has miserably failed to instill confidence among Goans about safety of fish available in markets.

Since the formalin-in-fish issue broke out a year ago the government has been in a denial mode about imported fish being preserved using formalin. The government’s bluff was exposed by the Malpe Fishermen’s Association, based six kilometres west of Udupi-Karnataka; the association said formalin was used by them to preserve fish. Fish importers from Goa source their consignment also through Malpe fishing harbour. The government promised that the state-of-the-art laboratory manned by officials of the Export Inspection Agency (EIA) at Margao would be opened by March but there is no sign of it becoming functional. Fisheries Minister Vinod Palienkar said last month that it would take at least a year for EIA lab to become functional. The health department claims it has started testing of fish through the Quality Council of India (QCI) teams at border checkposts using a stringent Japanese method. The lie was exposed when the media found that the kit used for testing was developed by Kochi-based Central Institute of Fisheries Technology and was in common use and not very effective in detecting harmful substances.

The indifference of the health ministry to ensure safety standards for fish to the satisfaction of the common man is appalling. There are Goans who gave up eating fish after the reports of formalin traces in fish. Others started buying locally caught fish, which was available at higher prices. The government was exposed in May this year after the Congress party came up with a report from a well-known private laboratory that one of the two samples of fish was found to contain formalin. The government chose to ignore the findings and the health ministry questioned the veracity of the findings of the laboratory. The whole approach of the state government in general and the health department in particular is based on the assumption that people do not care about whether the fish coming from other states carries harmful substances. There is total lack of zeal, passion, focus and interest in the health department to regulate the fish imports. In contrast, all the fish imported to the state but meant for export comes in insulated trucks that follow the global food safety standards. The exporting companies do their own checks according to global standards. If a few exporters can guarantee that the fish imported by them for the export market is safe for human consumption, why cannot a whole state government guarantee that the fish imported for the Goan domestic market uses the same standards and is fit for human consumption?

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