What Are You Really Consuming in the Name of Nutrition?

In India, 70% of the population consists of non-vegetarians and fish is a favourite amongst the coastal community and others alike. Formalin, a solution of formaldehyde is a pungent gas used as an antiseptic, disinfectant and commonly used in the preservation of corpses in mortuaries. Formalin is also used in the production of pressed-wood products, fibreboard, plywood, glues and adhesives. Interestingly, non-vegetarian people already have a tryst with the chemical before attaining death; unknowingly. In the light of recent events, it has come forward that fish being sold in states like Goa and Kerala are being laced with formalin. Fish is known to be highly perishable and to preserve its freshness this tactic is being incorporated into the fishery business. What is conveniently being ignored is the malignancy of this devious scheme. The barter deal for a longer shelf life is in exchange for the health of citizens.

Formalin is a carcinogenic chemical known to be primarily associated with leukaemia along with a decrease in fertility with long-term exposure. The ingestion of as little as 30 ml of a solution which contains 37% formaldehyde has been reported to cause death in adults according to a study by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Formalin is not the only culprit; diluted ammonia is also used to freeze the fish as the chemical slows down the melting process of ice. Inhalation of formaldehyde results in adverse effects in humans as nausea, perforation, watery and burning eyes, coughing, wheezing and skin irritation amongst the short-term exposure effects. A majority of unsuspecting suburban people in metropolitan cities purchase fish from supermarkets which is a thriving ground for formalin laced fish. The controversy has not been received well by the enraged fishing community.

As part of ‘Operation Sagar Rani’, an operation launched by the state of Kerala; nearly 9,600 kg of preserved fish preserved in formalin was seized. A foolproof technique to identify formalin laced fish is to observe any flies hovering around the fish. If there are no flies, it proves that the fish is contaminated. The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) and Central Institute of Fisheries Technology (CIFT) have issued guidelines regarding the usage of the harmful chemical after the recent raid on outstation fish consignments. Formaldehyde is banned from any use in food as per the Food Safety and Standards Regulation of 2011. The easy procurement of chemicals like ammonia and formaldehyde is one of the reasons for this rampant scam. The government is providing kits to check for the presence of the chemical in the fish.

There is a deeper underlying issue to the adulterated fish fiasco, the muddle that is antibiotic resistance. The fraudulent use of antibiotics to uplift poultry production can have unfavourable effects on health. Antibiotic resistance enters into our ecosystem transferring from one element to the other, from animals and crops to humans and so on. Some variants of bacteria which have the capacity to cause serious diseases and infections in humans have already developed resistance to most of the existing treatments. It puts tremendous amounts of pressure on research departments throughout the world. There must be a drastic reduction in antibiotic injection in food-producing animals. These animals must be treated with medication only when absolutely required and the doses must be infection-specific. The FSSAI plans on fixing “tolerance limits” on the presence of antibiotics in food items soon. The government body has also made changes to the existing Food Safety and Standards (Contaminants, toxins and Residues, 2011).

The contradicting controversy surrounding the infected fish is amusing to a level that the practice of using a chemical substance to increase the shelf life of a commodity is used for consumption by the same community whose life is being endangered. The incident has not only made the country cautious but is a threat to our booming tourism industry as well. Coastal zones like Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Goa are constantly under the radar after the occurrence. It’s a common phenomenon to place one’s focus on short-term goals, ignoring the long-term ones but the question is at what cost are we doing that? Whose life is at stake? Are we so cold and heartless that to save a few bucks, we compromise the lives of commoners?

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