Formalin in Fish! That’s a Recipe for Disaster

Formalin-laced prawns and fish was seized by authorities in Kerala. Why are traders adding this cancer-agent to fish?

Sayoni Bhaduri

The increasing number of cases of food adulteration is a worrying trend for consumers as well as governing bodies. Whether it is hormones in milk and milk products, excess amounts of pesticides in fruit, vegetables, cereals, lentils, or antibiotics in chicken, this rampant malpractice by farmers, middle-men and traders puts the lives of consumers in danger. Says Ashwin Bhadri, CEO of testing and compliance organisation Equinox Labs, “It is disheartening to witness the rate at which cases of adulteration have been growing in the country among different food products. Just a few weeks ago news broke about the carcass meat sold in Kolkata, the adulteration in oil and fruits and now there’s  formalin in fish.” Being busy city dwellers, we may not realise the scale of the problem, except the occasional social media post where a disgruntled consumer boils plastic instead of milk.

Latest in the long list of adulterated products is seafood. Earlier this week a full scale operation was undertaken against adulterated seafood in Kerala. Almost 10,000 kg of seafood (crustaceans and fish) was intercepted by Food Safety Department authorities, which tested positive for formalin. Two days prior to the Kerala crackdown, Nagaland prohibited the storage, distribution, and sale of fresh fish products treated with formalin or other forms of preservatives in the state for a period of three months or till corrective measures were taken. This is a precautionary measure.

None of us had heard of Operation Sagar Rani before news of the formalin fish surfaced, but it has been active for little over a year now. The mandate was to ensure safe and hygienic handling of seafood at distribution centres. This was before FSSAI had finalised its guidelines for fish and fisheries products—that happened in October last year.

This week has shocked the nation as a huge section of India’s population is dependent on resources from the ocean for their livelihood and dietary needs. There have been sprinkling of new reports in the last couple of months that have indicated the use of formalin in fisheries across the country. This is the first time the entire haul has been caught before it hits the market. Bhadri says, "The vendors involved should be prosecuted and penalised. In order to stop these activities, every food company, big or small should adopt strict food hygiene, regular audits and frequent tests to retain trust of consumers. In addition to this, consumers must implement various techniques that can be easily known to detect adulteration and harmful effects found in the food products." Test kits developed by Central Institute of Fisheries Technology (CIFT), Kochi, to check for Formalin and will be available to consumers in a month’s time.

The question begs to be asked: Why? It boils down to market demand and the premium on ‘fresh’ produce. Formalin, or any other synthetic chemical, Bhadri explains, is used to extend the shelf life but can prove fatal if ingested and a ban on their use is a must.

Consumerist behaviour and unsustainable practices add to the woes, especially when it comes to seafood. Know Your Fish, a voluntary initiative towards an ocean-friendly lifestyle, has been addressing this exact issue in the one year of their existence. Driven by three young marine biologists, who then worked with like-minded professionals share monthly recommendations for sustainable seafood. They based it on two basic logics: avoid fishing during breeding season and juvenile fish, and collateral damage control from largescale fishing.  

The former is self-explanatory—and avoiding seafood in the monsoon in Indian food habits is a result of this. The latter focuses on the fact that while fishing for a particular fish species, there is a lot of by-catch, which often ends being critical or endangered species such as sharks. Reducing our dependence on premier fish such as kingfish, mackerel, hilsa, rohu, etc., all year long and opting for seasonal options is another way to go.

One small step now for a safer future.

What is formalin?

Formalin is a liquid-based formaldehyde. In controlled amounts, it has medical benefits in sterilization of medical equipment, but it is better known as a preservative for a body post-mortem.

Why is formalin bad for us?

It is a cancer-causing agent. In smaller doses, it can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, inflammation of the stomach, and ulcers in the short term.


Images have been used for representational purposes only.


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