75 fish samples tested positive for formalin contamination

In a written reply to the Lok Sabha, Union health minister JP Nadda has confirmed the presence of formalin in 75 fish samples taken from Nagaland, Assam, Meghalaya, Kerala and Punjab. The Food Safety and Standards (FSS) Act, 2006 does not permit the use of formaldehyde or formalin in any form, including as preservative and/or additive, in any food products

75 fish samples tested positive for formalin contamination
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  • The Maharashtra Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) had collected five fish samples from different fish markets across Mumbai.
  • The fish samples were sent to the laboratory for the purpose of testing, to find out whether the fish has been contaminated with the chemical formalin.
  • Reports confirmed that the five samples tested negative for formalin contamination

Reports of use of formalin in fish and fishery products in the country have come to the notice of Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI).

Generally, formaldehyde is naturally present in marine fishes (like mackerel, Bombay duck etc.) and shellfishes (shrimps and brackish water prawns) and it is very minimal (<4 mg per kg) or absent in freshwater fish.

Any freshwater fish testing positive, either through the rapid test or through laboratory analysis, indicates added formalin. However, occurrence of formalin in freshwater fish amounts to illegal use of prohibited substance that affects the safety of consumer and, is liable to be prosecuted.

The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), in consultation with Central Institute of Fisheries Technology (CIFT), Kochi, has prepared a guidance document and issued it to all the States. It has also been placed on FSSAI’s website for the benefit of general public as well.

To ensure the availability of safe and wholesome food, regular surveillance, monitoring, inspection and random sampling of food products, are undertaken by the officials of Food Safety Departments of the respective states/ union territories to check that they comply with the standards laid down under the FSS Act and rules, regulations made thereunder.

In cases where the food samples are found to be non-conforming, recourse is taken to penal provisions under Chapter IX of the FSS Act, 2006. As per the report received from the States/UTs so far, the number of samples of fish lifted and found non-conforming is as under:

Number of fish market inspected number of fish samples lifted number of sampled found conforming number of samples found non-conforming:

386    608    533    75*

* indicates non-conforming samples. Out of 75 non-conforming samples:

  • 58 reported from Nagaland.
  • 1 from Assam.
  • 12 from Meghalaya.
  • 3 from Kerala.
  • And, 1 from Punjab.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of WHO classifies formaldehyde as ‘carcinogenic to humans,’ with sufficient evidence for causing nasopharyngeal cancer in humans with occupational exposure.

However, WHO has indicated that formaldehyde was not carcinogenic through ingestion route. There are, however, other side effects. While ingestion of a small amount of formaldehyde is unlikely to cause acute effect, but ingestion of a large amount of formaldehyde can generally cause severe abdominal pain, vomiting, coma, renal injury and possible death.

The Central Institute of Fisheries Technology (CIFT), on the advice of FSSAI, has developed a rapid detection kit ‘CIFTest Kit’ that can be used to determine the presence of formalin on fish.

  • The rapid kit is paper strip based which qualitatively determines the presence of formaldehyde within 2 minutes.
  • The paper strip has to be swabbed over the surface of fish 3-4 times in different areas followed by addition of one drop of reagent.
  • Colour developed within 1-2 minutes is compared with standard chart provided. CIFT has provided these testing kits to 28 agencies including FSSAI.

While speaking to My Medical Mantra, Dr Jayesh Lele, General Physician in Mumbai said, “Formalin is a very dangerous chemical. Generally, this chemical is used in the mortuaries to preserve the bodies. But, now people are using this chemical to preserve fish as well. So, we must wash the fish properly and cook it so that we will not consume the chemical.”

What is formalin?

  • Formalin is a chemical used to preserve fish for a longer period of time.
  • There have been reports that traders are using the chemical to preserve fish.
  • Formalin is a carcinogenic chemical.
  • According to experts, formalin consumption can cause cancer, coughing, wheezing, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, skin irritation, watery eyes, burning sensations of the eyes, nose, and throat.