Fish lovers beware! Unscrupulous fish wholesalers are using formalin, a toxic and carcinogenic chemical commonly used to preserve dead bodies in mortuaries, to prevent fish from deteriorating during transportation.
Apparently the fisheries department of Punjab picked up samples of hundreds of fish in the fresh fish markets and found they had a large dose of formalin in them. The fish came from Delhi but the Health Minister who is a doctor himself uttered the usual nonsensical political babble: ‘We will definitely enquire about it and once it is authentically established, we will take whatever action is required under food safety laws.’ The fish lobby headed by Riyasat Ali swung into action to prevent any samples being taken from the Ghazipur fish market. Every day, 20−50 tonnes of fish arrives at this
market from places as far away as Orissa, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh.
The contaminated fish was a type of Vietnamese catfish which is now farmed in Andhra Pradesh. Locally known as ‘Basa’, it has become popular in India, because it is a virtually boneless, freshwater fish. It is, in fact, one of the most extensively farmed fish in Asia.
Trade sources said preserving fish in formalin is a common practice not just in Andhra Pradesh but also across India. Formalin treatment increases the shelf life of the fish which takes about a week to reach Punjab from Andhra Pradesh. Trade sources said formalin is available over the counter and is cheap; hence, it is often used to illegally preserve perishable food items like fish.
Punjab fish growers said they had been advised by their wholesale buyers to also use formalin as fish meat spoils easily and its transportation and storage involves a lot of effort. Between September and March, Punjab consumes nearly 250 tonnes of Basa fish every day. Formaldehyde has been added as a preservative after the fish were caught, during transportation or storage.
The Punjab farmers have woken up just now. I thought everybody knew that most fish brought inland is doused in formalin. Not just here but across Asia. In Hong Kong, the Centre for Food Safety has regularly found formaldehyde (170−570 ppm) in noodlefish. (In Hong Kong the use of formaldehyde in food is liable to a fine of HK$ 50,000 and imprisonment for 6 months.) If you look at the net, Sri Lanka fish buyers are aware that fish is dipped in formalin and food colouring before being transported from the fish ports to the inland markets. In Malaysia information from the government say that imported fish e.g. cod/salmon/fin/tuna have formalin in them. A number of studies done by the Bangladesh government that show that a significant percentage of fish which is imported from neighbouring countries (e.g., about 80,000 kg of fish products enter Bangladeshi markets everyday through the Teknaf border from Myanmar) are contaminated with formalin. The results of a study on ‘Formaldehyde Content in Rui Fish (Labeo rohita) in Bangladesh in 2008’, published in the Journal of Medical Sciences, showed that formaldehyde levels were high in imported rui fish coming from India and Myanmar.
In another study on ‘Intensity of Formalin Use in Fish Preservation in Dhaka City’ published in 2009 in the Journal of Fisheries International, showed that formalin was found in 44% of Rohu Labeo rohita imported from India. Other fish in which formalin was found were Catla (Catla Catla)(22%), Mrigel (6%), small shrimp (6%), kachki (Corica soborna) (6%), bele (Glossogobius guris)(2%) and others (4%).
In Bangladesh for the first time formalin-treated fish were identified in 2006 during an operation against impure food by a mobile court led by a Metropolitan Magistrate. So widespread is this practice that a Formalin Testing Centre has been set up to train administrators. Bangladesh’s Institute of Food Science and Technology has invented a Formalin Test kit and has a Formalin Test Center (FTC) situated at Kawran Bazar fish market.
Formaldehyde is a colourless, flammable gas with a pungent, distinct odour. It is used in industry to manufacture plastic resins that can be used in wood, paper and textile industry and at home; formaldehyde is produced by cigarettes and other tobacco products, gas cookers, and open fireplaces. Formaldehyde is immediately dangerous to life and health at 20 ppm. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has determined that formaldehyde is carcinogenic. Formalin is the name of a chemical substance consisting of 37% formaldehyde 10 per cent methanol and water. It is widely used as a preservative of dead bodies. In Asia formalin is illegally added in food for its preservative
effects. The common incriminated food items are meat and meat derivates, chicken paws, crustaceans and fish.
Acute toxicity of formaldehyde can cause severe abdominal pain, vomiting, coma, renal injury and possible death, if certain amount of it is consumed. Formaldehyde causes inflammation of the linings of the mouth, throat and gastrointestinal tract and eventual ulceration and necrosis of the mucous lining of the gastrointestinal tract .The main health concern of formaldehyde is itscancer-causing potential. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) says there was sufficient evidence for carcinogenicity in humans. If you frequently eat foods that are preserved with formalin, it will over time cause irritation to the stomach, causing diarrhea mixed with blood. The most common result of chronic poisoning caused by formalin is damaged kidneys and cancer. Formalin has been linked to nasal and lung cancer, with possible links to brain cancer and leukaemia.
It is foolish to tell you to buy only ‘fresh’ fish as the purpose of formalin is to fool you into thinking the fish is fresh. The fish will have an odd smell, but people are now confused into believing that this smell is normal. The fish will be stiff – but who knows what the difference is? The traders may dip the whole fish or inject formalin in the fish body cavity or spread formalin-mixed water on the fish surface while the fish are displayed for sale.
Formalin in fish is like syphilis: every country’s local name for the disease means ‘coming from foreigners!’ The truth is that every fish trader is involved in this practice and you are the victim. Happy eating.