Oei Eng Goan
It is customary for government officials to carry out inspections at traditional markets in the weeks leading up to national holidays to check that prices and supplies of basic food commodities are stable. The lead up to the Idul Fitri holiday on Aug. 19-20 is no exception.
Officials of the Trade Ministry revealed that some fruits and vegetables, including apples, oranges and onions, found in Jakarta have been tested and were found to contain formalin and other pesticides. The agency issued a warning for people to be careful when buying those goods, especially those that have been imported.
Although the quantity of the chemicals is still within tolerable levels, the ministry said last week that it planned to expand its inspections to several more markets outside the capital city for the benefit of consumers.
But it is the intense on-the-spot inspections being conducted by officials of the Drug and Food Control Agency during the fasting month of Ramadan that have attracted the publicâ€™s attention the most. The main goal of the agencyâ€™s undertaking is to ensure that the food being sold is hygienic and has not passed the expiration date.
The agency, overseen by the Ministry of Health, while inspecting several markets and food retailers in cities in Java, Sumatra, and Sulawesi discovered that many foods and beverages were potentially hazardous to consumersâ€™ health because they contained chemical ingredients unfit for human consumption.
The chemicals, usually used as preservatives, are formalin, borax and rhodamine, a red dye for textile coloring.
These substances are commonly found in noodles and local dishes and drinks, Food and Drug Monitoring Agency (BPOM) officials told the media late last week.
Actually such unannounced inspections should be conducted more often, and not only during Ramadan. And the agencyâ€™s findings must be announced to the public so that everyone can know about them. It should also remind people that consuming foods laden with hazardous chemicals will endanger their lives.
Most people can identify rotten fruits and vegetables from their smell and look but they will have difficulty in distinguishing which processed foods are safe and edible.
In a number of instances, officials only confiscate the bad food products and give the store owners strong warnings that their shops or stalls can be closed if they continue to sell commodities that are legally banned.
As expected, the warnings usually go unheeded, as irresponsible people continue to sell â€śforbiddenâ€ť food from year to year. Why? Because no strict punishments are ever imposed.
This explains why we hear about cases of food poisoning happening in small towns or villages â€” sometimes even in big cities â€” where dozens of people collapsed or died after consuming bad food at a party or wedding.
It is time for the agency to start working with the National Police to track down producers and distributors of formalin- and borax-laden food who are out for financial gain and care nothing about the lives of others. Those irresponsible people must be brought to justice and be punished severely so as to discourage other heartless business opportunists from doing similar things.
The use of approved preservatives is common in most of the foods we buy today, provided the amounts of those chemicals are within a predetermined limits. But when companies choose to exceed those limits, or use cheaper alternatives, the healthy of the public is at risk.
The question is whether or not the tolerable level of these foods meet the standard set by the World Health Organization, and if the government has rigid control on the use of such chemicals. If the answer is â€śnoâ€ť, hundreds of thousands of rural Indonesians remain prone to consuming dangerous foods.
Oei Eng Goan, a former literature lecturer at the National University (UNAS) in Jakarta, is a freelance journalist.