Seizing ethephon-treated fruits- a colossal waste and blunder


By Dr Parakrama Waidyanatha

Last Saturday’s’ The Island’ and other media reported prominently that the Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) seized some 75,000kg of fruits from the Manning Market in Pettah, mostly banana, papaw and mango that had been directly treated with ethephon for rapid ripening. The question to be asked is whether CAA has enacted legislation and regulations to do so. Is direct ethephon use on fruits legally banned? If not the affected vendors should seek legal redress.

Ethephon (2 chloroethylphosphoric acid ) is a chemical applied universally for both pre-harvest and post harvest ripening of a variety of fruits and vegetables. It is commonly used for pre-harvest ripening of fruits such as apples, grapes, citrus and tomato, particularly for the purpose of synchronized ripening when fruits of slightly differing ages occur. It is more widely used in post harvest ripening of fruits such as banana, papaw and mango etc.

Ethephon when applied on fruits releases ethylene, a gas, which is a natural plant growth regulator(hormone) which is the active compound that hastens ripening. Ripening fruits and injury to plant parts also naturally release this gas. It is a chemical of low mammalian toxicity, the LD 50 (the dose that can kill 50% of the subjects) for rats being over 4 grams per kilogram of body weight if taken orally. For skin and eyes (acute precutaneous), the LD 50 for rabbits is nearly 6 grams per kilogram.

It is a common practice of vendors and households to dip fruits in a dilute (usually 0.3% ) solution of ethephon or spray it for quick ripening. However, the Department of Agriculture recommendation is for a dilute solution of ethephon to be mixed with calcium hydroxide to release the ethylene gas, and the fruits to be exposed to it in a chamber. Commercial organizations usually expose fruits to ethylene gas in chambers and then regulate the speed of ripening depending on the market demand, by controlling the ambient temperature of store houses. The shiny and yellow Cavendish bananas in the supermarkets are all ethylene gas treated. The CAA’s position appears to be that exposure to ethylene gas is permissible but not direct contamination with ethapon. The writer is at a loss to know the rationale behind, given the fact that ethapon formulations are not known to have toxic contaminants. Who is advising the CAA?

In the past, the use of calcium carbide for fruit ripening had been common. It reacts with water releasing acetylene which is also known to ripen fruits Its use for fruit ripening , however, has been banned but many yet continue to use it stealthily. This chemical is of course highly toxic, and is reported to cause cancer, neurological disorders, eye damage etc. It is also highly inflammable. Its use in fruit ripening has been banned in most countries, but apparently not yet in Malaysia where it is reported to be widely used.

There have been regular raids by the Indian Food and Drugs Authority largely against the use of calcium carbide which had been banned for use in fruit ripening as far back as 1954, but there is no bar to the direct application of ethephon. In July, 2010 like our CAA, the Indian food inspectors had gone berserk, seizing all artificially ripened banana, not been able to distinguish between those ethephon treated as against calcium carbide treated! This drive had disrupted banana supplies to cities, and the Indian Council for Agricultural Research had promptly stepped in, declaring that ethephon treated banana in the concentration of 100-200 ppm is safe for human consumption. There is also no restriction to direct ethephon application in other countries such as Thailand, Indonesia and Bangladesh.

The CAA is catching fry when the killer whales are at large. Has the CAA or any other authority ever analyzed the pesticide residues in those unblemished, pretty-looking brinjals, bitter gourds, snake gourds and the like in the market place? They are full of them, I bet! It is common knowledge that farmers even spray just prior to harvest whereas they are supposed to keep a lag of one or two weeks between harvest and any application of pesticides. The CAA would do better having a programme perhaps in conjunction with the Registrar of Pesticides to monitor pesticide residues in food and publish the information regularly for the public.

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