Unscrupulous vendors are exposing unsuspecting Malawians to the risk of cancer following revelations that some traders are selling fresh foods, including fish and mushrooms, preserved using formaldehyde which a medical expert said is an embalming fluid.
Professor John Chisi of the University of Malawi’s College of Medicine was reacting to The Nation enquiry following revelations of results of Malawi Bureau of Standards (MBS) laboratory tests on fresh frozen fish samples which indicated that the fish products were contaminated with “dangerously high presence of formaldehyde” than is usually expected.
In a letter dated March 20 2018 addressed to Captain Charles Masi of Malawian Airways who lodged a consumer complaint, MBS deputy director general Willy Muyila has since requested for details of the fish suppliers for appropriate follow up action.
In the letter, Muyila said the laboratory results of the fish samples, which were 10 in total but had eight of them discarded, showed that their general appearance was complying. However, the fish contained 0.6 percent (600mg/kg) of formaldehyde against the expected maximum requirement of 60mg/kg which is 100 times more.
Reads the letter: “…and this shows that the extra formaldehyde was deliberately added to the fish to preserve it, which is a health hazard.”
Yesterday, Muyila asked for more time before he could respond to The Nation on the matter.
But Chisi, who is also chairperson of Medical Council of Malawi (MCM) board, while observing that there were indeed some instances where fish is being tampered with, said the chemical is used for embalming the dead and their chain reactions in the body is equally harmful.
He said: “It is indeed sad that we [Malawians] have lost morals to the point that we can use an embalming fluid, which is supposed to kill cells, for food preservation. This is happening a lot and it is not fair, especially to those who are caught offguard.
“If a chemical has the ability to kill cells, imagine the impact it can have in the human body once consumed. This means more problems to one’s health. We need to have a system in place to prosecute those who are doing this malpractice.”
On how one can identify such fish, Chisi said even though the appearance does not change once this embalming fluid is used in the products; it is the taste that consumers should watch out for as it is different.
Information published on the Centre for Food Safety of the Government of Hong Kong Special Administration Region indicates that the main health concern of formaldehyde is its cancer-causing ability.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer of the World Health Organisation (WHO) classified formaldehyde as “carcinogenic to humans”, with consideration that there was sufficient evidence for causing nasopharyngeal cancer in humans, strong but not sufficient evidence between leukaemia and occupational exposure.
Consumers Association of Malawi (Cama) executive director John Kapito said there is need to protect consumers in such instances, as not every consumer can afford to buy such food products from recognised superstores.
“To tame this, there is need for a lot of inspection by authorities and ensure that those selling such fresh products are given licences to conduct such businesses and have their products tested before they enter the market. Otherwise, this is really sad,” he said.