THE doubts about the efficacy of tests by the director of food and drug administration for checking the fish imported from other states for formalin and ammonia have only been reinforced by the FDA drafting unqualified officials for the job. Checks to detect formalin and ammonia are specialised jobs; they need to be performed by competent and qualified persons. Over a month ago, the FDA under immense public pressure posted its officials at the Pollem and Patradevi checkposts. This stretching out was done despite the FDA lacking manpower to do 24 x 7 checkpost monitoring. with its limited number of technicians engaged in border checks, the FDA has been failing to check fruits, vegetables and other goods for hazardous content. They have been desperately asking fisheries and transport departments for manpower for doing the border checking. In the process, checks on fish are being conducted by assistant electricians and helpers from the Brackish Water (Fish Farmers) Development Agency (BFDA) and lower division clerks from FDA, who have no qualification to check the quality of fish.
Following the scare among fish eating Goans after samples of imported fish were found in FDA spot tests at the Margao wholesale fish market to be laced with formalin, a toxic chemical known to cause cancer, the government banned import of fish from other states for 15 days. After most Goans gave up consuming fish following the scare, the government sought to instill confidence by posting FDA technicians at the border checkposts. Doubts have been raised whether the FDA teams were able to do thorough checks to foil the fish traders’ tricks of keeping formalin- and ammonia-free fish in the crates closest to the rear end of the truck body and stacking the unsafe ones in crates deep inside. Considering the number of fish trucks entering through checkposts, it cannot be said with certainty if the FDA tests are fully reliable. Now with the services of unqualified officials requisitioned, doubts about the safety standards being compromised have become stronger. The bosses of transport department deserve appreciation for refusing to send their officials to join the FDA teams on the ground that they were not qualified to detect formalin and ammonia contamination in fish.
The state government has been taking contradictory steps on the formalin issue from the very beginning. After FDA teams found the presence of formalin in the consignments of fish in Margao and Panaji during spot tests, the FDA director whitewashed it, saying lab tests found that the formalin found in fish was within “permissible limits” and the fish was fit for consumption! Surprisingly over a dozen and half tests were carried out within a couple of hours and the reports of all the tests were almost similar. The FDA director also claimed that formalin is inherently present in fish, only to change their stand following rebuttal by experts. Health Minister Vishwajit Rane’s first reaction was that he was in favour of total ban on fish imports but failed to take the issue to a logical end. The temporary ban imposed on July 18 was withdrawn and fish traders were allowed to import fish.
Rane also said no trader will be allowed to import fish without obtaining a licence from the FDA. It has been more than a month since the warning was issued, but there has been no news of any trader applying for licence to the FDA. The reality is that the FDA has always been weak and toothless with regard to fish traders. After all, formalin became an issue this year only after surprise checks by FDA teams at Margao detected it. Unsafe fish must have been imported in the previous years but gone undetected. Use of formalin by fish traders in Andhra Pradesh and other states was after all not started in 2018!
Health Minister Vishwajit Rane and FDA director are jointly accountable for the lingering suspicion in the minds of Goans that the checks for safety standards with regard to fish import were being done perfunctorily and casually. They seem to be doing it more to make the Goans believe that the fish was safe for consumption and not to actually make their monitoring really precise and free from errors. They are playing with the lives of Goans. The adverse effects of formalin and ammonia do not show immediately, so gullible Goans consuming imported fish believe what Vishwajit Rane and Jyoti Sardesai are making them believe. That Rane and Sardesai have been soft towards the fish traders is clear from the fact that they have not stopped any of them from importing fish even though they have not taken any licence from FDA.