Thousands of flies swarm around a garbage pile outside Phsar Thmei, and it smells bad.
But enter a market stall and inspect a basket of sugar or prahok. There’s a chance the goods will be suspiciously free of flies.
“I know that some vendors like to put it in,” said Uon Rim, 43. “But my prahok, I guarantee there is no chemical.”
But nearby is another peddler’s basket. The prahok it holds is unusually white and flies avoid it.
“No, it is naturally white like this, ” the seller said, when asked if her prahok had been treated with chemicals.
She would not give her name but said, “I know chemicals endanger the consumer’s health, so I do not use it.”
Market officials said earlier this week that vendors often rinse fruits and vegetables with water-diluted chemicals, which repel flies and make the produce appear fresher and more attractive to buyers.
“This has been happening for more than a year,” said Chum Saroeun, director of Phsar Daum Kor, said Tuesday. “But some type of coconut has been getting treated for a least two years.”
Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara said he has repeatedly ordered city health officials to investigate the matter.
At the City Hall public forum earlier this month Chea Sophara told about 500 people in attendance that chemically treated food can be dangerous and sometimes causes cancer or diabetes.
“The chemical food affects our citizens’ health,” he said. “I must look thoroughly into this.”
Veng Thai, director of Phnom Penh’s health department, said Monday he had sent officials to markets to look for treated foods and to educate vendors about the dangers of chemicals.
Officials found that most vendors did not know about the potential harm they could be doing to customers, he said. They were just trying to sell more attractive fruit.
“I requested that City Hall issue a directive banning people from selling chemically treated food,” Veng Thai said. “If vendors continue to use chemical treatments despite the directive, they will be fined.”
Vendor Uon Rim said that if the city bans the sale of chemically treated food she will tell her friends not to use it anymore.
“It sounds very good,” she said. “But it is hard to believe [the ban] could stop the vendors [from using chemicals] because it is a way to make money.”