Preservatives-laden imported fruits: Sri Lankans are being poisoned all around

GMOA calls for tough action


By Suresh Perera

Amidst mounting concern over the use of hazardous chemicals to prolong the shelf life of imported fruits for as long as nine months, the Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) last week warned of a "disastrous situation" if this unhealthy trend was not arrested.

"We have taken up this grave issue with the health authorities and are still awaiting a report", says Dr. Nalin Ariyaratne, GMOA’s Assistant Secretary.

With a steady decline in locally-grown fruits, imports have zoomed with Sri Lanka spending billions of rupees on consignments mainly from India, Pakistan, China, Australia, and on a limited scale from USA, industry officials said.

In 2012, 21 million kilos of apples were imported at a cost of Rs. 1.8 billion, 5.9 million kilos of oranges at Rs. 511 million and 5.1 million kilos of grapes were purchased at Rs. 1.1 billion, they said.

It is no secret that loads of chemicals are used as preservatives to maintain the freshness of these imported varieties of fruit, Ariyaratne asserted. "The so-called ‘fresh apples’ are preserved for six to nine months as the chemicals prevent rotting".

"We asked the authorities to check on the nature of preservatives used and their deleterious effects on human health", he noted. "It is important to get to the bottom of this unacceptable practice as health and safety cannot be compromised".

He said the GMOA had been busy concentrating on the issue of chronic kidney diseases in the North Central Province, but would continue to push the authorities to look into and report back on the import and sale of contaminated fruits in the market.

Asked whether the Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) is contemplating imposing a mandatory ‘Best Before’ date on imported fruits, a high-ranking official said there is no such immediate move as practical problems exist.

The imported fruits are not sold in a packaged form at the retail end, she pointed out. "Take grapes, apples or oranges as examples. We cannot implement a directive on ‘Best Before’ date stickers because there is no packaging involved".

"We are aware that these fruits, particularly apples, are preserved for months on using various chemicals", the official acknowledged. "Apart from looking at the regulatory aspect to deal with the situation, we are also educating the public on the danger of consuming these preservatives-laden fruits".

Greater awareness should be created in this regard so that people will avoid imported products and turn to local varieties, she suggested. "What Sri Lanka lacks are adequate cold storage facilities so that fruits could be preserved for consumption during the off-season".

When there is an abundance of mangoes, for example, growers are forced to sell at rock bottom prices or discard their produce due to a glut in the market, she noted. "This wouldn’t happen if stocks could be preserved for future use".

Another big disadvantage is the absence of modern technology to scientifically analyze fruits to determine whether chemical preservatives injurious to health had been used, the official said. "This is a major drawback".

"We can develop a globally accepted methodology to test fruits for their chemical contents, but no requests for analysis have been forthcoming", said Dr. G. A. S. Premakumara, Director/CEO, Industrial Technology Institute (ITI).

"Why not? We formally asked the ITI to scientifically analyze papaw to determine whether carbide had been used, but was told that the necessary technology was not available", the senior CAA official shot back.

Carbide is a deleterious chemical used by unscrupulous traders to ripen papaw, plantains and other varieties of fruits.

The ITI, as done in the recent detection of contaminated milk powder, has the accredited laboratory facilities to develop a methodology for the scientific analysis of fruits to ascertain heavy metals, fungicides and pesticides residues, Premakumara assured.

"The whole question is that nobody has so far asked us to analyze fruits", he said. "Apart from our routine testing work, we could have adopted new methods if there was a request".

There is a virtual monopoly on the import of fruits to Sri Lanka involving big money, well-known trade names coupled with hefty margins, industry officials asserted. "It’s a lucrative trade".

Unlike in the past, imported fruits have largely penetrated even rural markets dislodging luscious local varieties, which were in demand at one time, they noted. "The balance has changed dramatically with the unhindered flow of imports".

Fruits laden with preservatives pose a grave threat to children who are particularly fond of them and far worse, even during a sickness, parents tend to give these apples and oranges to their offspring, the officials pointed out. "This could aggravate their health condition".

According to reports, the time span between apples being picked in Australia and purchased in Sri Lanka is about nine months. Apples lead in the list of top pesticide-laden fruits followed by strawberries and grapes.

The reports quoted the Washington Toxic Coalition saying that the insectide carbaryl is widely used in the US on apple and grape crops and pesticides including organophosphate and carbamate can have effects on the nervous system, with symptoms including weakness, breathing trouble, cramps, nausea, and vomiting.

As neither the Customs nor the Health Ministry is equipped with a detection system, it is smooth sailing for importers, officials said. "It has never been so good for them".

In Sri Lanka, traders use wax on apples to make the fruits look good and fresh, they said. "Either way, Sri Lankans are being gradually poisoned all around".

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