RANGOON — For decades, Burma’s food manufacturers have been using dangerous chemicals to produce food quickly and cheaply, but it is only in the past few years that consumers have become aware of the problem, says the country’s only consumer rights group.
The latest revelation came earlier this week, when the Myanmar Consumer Protection Association confirmed that urea-based fertilizer is being widely used in the production of fish paste, a staple of the Burmese diet.
The association said that it had been unable to find any fish paste produced in Irrawaddy Division that was not contaminated by the fertilizer.
“It normally takes six months to ferment fish paste, but by adding the fertilizer, the period is shortened to just two to three weeks,” said Ba Oak Khaing, the chairman of the association, explaining why the practice has become so common.
After decades of weak government oversight, chemicals banned as food additives in much of the rest of the world routinely appear in Burmese food products, say observers. According to Ba Oak Khaing, Burma has the worst food-safety standards of any member state of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
In a rare display of openness, in March 2009, the Health Ministry of Burma’s then military government revealed that Auromine O, a chemical dye normally used to color natural fabrics and paper, had been found in 43 brands of pickled tea leaves.
More recently, there have been reports of dyed mushrooms, adulterated chili powder and even fake eggs imported from China.
“We regularly hear about cases of food poisoning related to the excessive use of chemicals,” said Ba Oak Khaing, whose association was formed in August of last year.
Doctors and health activists say that more must be done to raise public awareness of the problem.
“The health and education sectors have been weak in our country, so we must have an effective awareness program for health education,” said Dr Mya Thaw, the vice-chairman of the NLD Health Network, established by Burma’s main opposition party, the National League for Democracy.
But education is not enough, says Ba Oak Khaing, noting that Burma still lacks food-safety laws strong enough to adequately protect consumers, though a new bill is now being discussed in Parliament, and the Ministry of Commerce has recently formed a department to deal with consumer affairs.
“Our health is being harmed by greedy businesspeople,” said Ba Oak Khaing.