The directorate of the food and drug administration (FDA) of Goa, and the department of health under which it functions, have failed to fully dispel people’s doubts about the safety of the fish imported from other states. The tests the health department was forced to make the FDA do for over a month at the two interstate border checkposts were questionable. Even the tests are now going to be random. The transport department had raised doubts about the health department’s claim of ‘guaranteeing’ safe fish by pointing out that there were many ways by which trucks with contaminated fish could enter Goa other than the two checkposts at Pollem and Patradevi. The most disturbing part of the health department’s and FDA’s attitude toward the whole fish contamination issue is that they have found the media as the scapegoat. Their entire anger is directed at the media and not the importers. People know that the wickedness cannot be placed at the media’s door which has only done its job to raise consumer awareness. Any wickedness, if it has to be laid upon anyone’s door, is of the importers and their political patrons and protectors.
Why have the health department and FDA not made public a list of licensed fish importers? How many of them applied for a licence since the health department ‘warned’ them to do? How many were granted one? Free enterprise does not mean freedom to do business without a licence. Someone who does not have licence does not have responsibility. He does not face penal action. Everyone who trades in food can do only with a FSSAI or FDA licence, for then only they can be made to comply with regulations for safety, sale and distribution of the food. The lenient manner in which the health department and the FDA have treated the fish importers is in sharp contrast to the pails of fire they have poured over the media, even shutting their doors to them. The FDA director has a gag order. The officials of FDA dread to speak to the media. However, the importer whose fish consignments triggered the formalin scare finds all doors of the government open for him. He is on the export panel now. Nothing has happened to him. Nothing has happened to any importers.
The whole formalin issue, which is so important to the health, well-being and life of the people, has been treated casually and dismissively by the health department. The one-month-long daily tests at the checkposts was nothing but a make-believe exercise. The health department took it as a public relations exercise, presuming that people were too gullible to not start believing again that the fish coming from other states was safe for consumption. ‘Once the noise dies down, we will quietly return to our random checks,’ the health department must have told the FDA directorate. What should be worrying to them is that though the noise has died down, the fears have not. Goans are showing a marked preference for the fish caught by ramponkars. There is a rise in the sale of locally netted fish. Of course, the locally netted fish cannot meet the entire demand. That is where Goans are feeling helpless on what to eat, and that is where the health department, which is supposed to the guardian of people’s health, is failing to help them, treating their daily problem of finding safe fish to eat in an extremely casual, dismissive and indifferent manner.
On the other hand, the health department is treating the importers with indulgence and approval, even though it is known that neither they nor the traders from whom they get their fish follow safety standards. The use of formalin is primarily to extend the shelf life of the fish and to give an artificial shine to the fish to make it keep looking fresh at the retail point. The trucks that transport fish from other states to Goa do not use standardized ice. The trucks are not properly insulated. Under such conditions, fish can be damaged and turn and look stale, so the traders use formalin. The health department of Goa, inspite of the people at large concerned about the safety of the fish they eat, has not shown any interest in forcing the importers to get fish only from such interstate traders who use standard ice and perfectly insulated trucks. Nor has the health department shown interest in giving more manpower and better technology to the FDA in order to make rigorous daily tests of fish trucks possible. It is bizarre to think that an organization as gigantic as a state government cannot assure a whole population about the safety of fish.