Taking serious note of traders using formalin to preserve fish, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) and the Central Institute of Fisheries Technology (CIFT) have warned them of punishments. The two central agencies have jointly prepared a ‘guidance note’ for fish traders and retailers and directed them to strictly use ice as preservative for interstate fish import or export, defining use of formalin as an unethical business practice. The central agencies want fish traders to ensure integrity of fish and fish products throughout storage, transportation and supply process and screen the fish consignments for formaldehyde content during procurement. Contrary to the unholy position taken by Goa’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that the formalin found in fish consignments in Margao was within permissible limits, the central agencies clearly say formalin is banned for use as preservative in foods in accordance with the Food Safety and Standards Regulations of 2011. Bizarrely, Goa’s FDA director had quoted these regulations to support approval of her permissible limit theory!
It is strange to note that though formalin was being commonly used by traders to preserve fish exported to Goa for years its use was found only after reports in the media. Fish traders use it to extend the shelf life of both fresh and frozen fish without regard for the health of consumers. Use of formalin for preserving fish or other foods is banned in most countries. The FSSAI says consumption of fish adulterated with formalin can cause severe abdominal pain, vomiting, coma, renal injury, and in some cases, even death. The World Health Organisation and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) have declared formalin carcinogenic in nature and causative of sensory irritation of eyes and lungs, dermatitis and asthma. Despite ban on formalin as preservative enforced across the country since 2011, the state FDA took no action against the Margao importer of fish consignments and released his trucks certifying his fish safe for human consumption. The FDA was playing with the health of the people; it was an act of criminal liability on their part. Health Minister Vishwajit Rane regretted having talked of formalin within permissible limit. But the FDA director has not yet apologized to the people for the same.
As formalin is one of the top 25 most widely produced chemicals and easily accessible by fish suppliers and retailers the FSSAI and CIFT have advised consumers to use a readily available test kit developed by the CIFT to detect added formalin in the fish. The kit would be made commercially available soon. As Goans are apprehensive about the quality of fish available in the market, the state government must make it easy and cheap for people to get a kit for themselves. The kit would help people conduct a preliminary test to detect presence of formalin. If they find its presence they should send the fish sample to FDA for final confirmation. With the use of kit even a layman would be able to check whether the fish is healthy for consumption or not. Fish consumers should also follow the advice of the central agencies to wash fish with running tap water to help remove formalin to a large extent and cook it thoroughly at the temperature of 75 degree Celsius or above as cooking helps in the removal of the chemical.
Goa’s FDA director has lost public trust. In order to save the FDA as an organization from losing public trust, the government must make them to strictly follow FSSAI directives. It may take a lot of time for the FDA to regain public confidence. To start with, the FDA director should make a public statement admitting the misleading results and promising not to repeat such mistakes. If the director does not do it, the Health Minister should direct her to do it. If the admission does not come, Goans would not believe any of the FDA results in the future, not only on fish samples but also on other types of food. Access to safe food is a fundamental right of the people. The Right to Life includes right to safe food, and the government and government agencies have a responsibility to ensure safe food is available to the people. As incomes of people have increased they have become more health conscious. The government and the FDA have learnt a big lesson from the formalin-in-fish episode. People lived without fish despite their thousand assurances that it was safe because they care about their health and would not risk eating unsafe food. The popular boycott of fish should be a warning enough for the government and FDA not to try and take people for a ride any more again, just to please fish traders and their