The month of July heralds the start of fishing season after a two month hiatus due to monsoons. This year the fishing season started a bit early in most Southern states.
However, fishermen have a new reason to worry. Price of fish for instance in Kasimedu the biggest harbour in Chennai, which usually sells about 200 tonnes of fish on weekends and around some 50 to 70 tonnes on the weekdays has crashed by more than 25% from Rs 200 per kg to just about Rs 130-150 per kg.
The reason: Health authorities sounded a warning that the fish might not be fresh and it maybe laced with formalin. The chemical is a carcinogenic substance used to preserve cadaver and was found among some samples. However Tamil Nadu is not alone. A fortnight back check post officials at Palakkad in Kerala had seized 14,000 kg of formalin laced fish from eight trucks and sent them back to their originating place in Andhra Pradesh with a warning that they were not edible in any form and should be destroyed immediately. A week later another 6000 kg of similarly formalin laced prawns and fish were seized again by health authorities in Kerala. This issue of formalin preserved fish is something which is increasingly becoming a challenge across the country.
For instance, fish maybe an important ingredient in the diet of any Naga household, but there is no fish in the Kohima market after massive seizures of formalin-laced fish across Nagaland.
“It shows the market is in the process of correcting itself,” said Himato Zhimomi, principal commissioner and secretary, health and family welfare department.
“It is an important part of our diet. But you can’t have chemical laced fish being sold,” he said.
In June, after rumours of presence of formalin-laced fish being sold in the state, the authorities cracked the whip.
On June 25, as many as 5,200kg of fish being sold or in transit in trucks were seized from Dimapur. A few days later, another 2,000kg were seized from across Nagaland.
Neighbouring Meghalya is facing the same issue.
The food and civil supplies, and the health and family welfare departments have been directed by chief minister Conrad Sangma to conduct a study on the fish being sold in the market. “We need to find out if they meet the safety standards or not,” Sangma said on Friday.
Earlier, this month, Manipur, too banned fish sales till further orders after traces of formalin were found in the produce being sold in the market. A similar ban has been ordered in East Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh even as all the district authorities have been asked to sensitise the sellers on the issue. In Assam too, the public health department has started a drive to check for traces of formalin in fish being sold in the market.
The reason why formalin is a favourite preservative is that once laced with it fish or other sea produce will remain intact for many days.
Medical experts say that formalin which is generally used to preserve bodies can cause serious ailments like cancer.
“Formalin poses serious health hazards. Once inside the body it triggers a metabolic process and produces toxins. While cooking its toxicity never gets spoiled,” says an health expert Dr Mathew Thomas.
The Chennai panic started after a kit devised by Tamil Nadu Dr J Jayalalithaa Fisheries University’s (TNJFU) referral laboratory of fish quality testing and certification identified the formalin content in fish kept for sale in Chennai markets.
However, K Bharathi, president of South Indian Fishers Welfare Association (SIFWA) says this could be a ploy by some ‘cruel-minded middlemen’ to destroy the lives of fishermen.
“Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) officials had conducted tests along with TNJFU kit in Kasimedu and other markets in Chennai on Friday. In the course of testing, they did not identify any formalin laced fish.
A day later, when TNJFU conducted tests on its own, it found a few fishes with formalin content. So, we suspect some outsiders could have done this with an intention to manipulate Chennai markets,” Bharathi says.