This morning thousands of people will eat noodles, fish sauce and prahok. Chances are, according to health officials and food workers, some of them will ingest noodles treated with the dangerous strengthening agent borax, fish sauce sprayed with pesticide or prahok dusted with insect-repellent.
Last year, Ministry of Health officials urged two factories in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district’s Chbar Ampou II commune to avoid using dangerous chemicals in their food products.
Five Star Chinese Noodle Factory was told to stop using borax after the factory owner voluntarily submitted his noodles for testing.
Two months ago, doctors trained the “fish sauce specialist” at Preah Protea Fish Sauce factory in how to maintain the three small filters used to remove contaminants from aging, moldy concrete vats.
They also warned the specialist to stay away from using restricted chemicals.
“In January or February 2004 my boss had the idea to have the noodles tested because he wants his factory to be famous for doing things the other factories do not do,” Five Star Manager Hok Sengkim said Monday. “We sent our noodles to the lab at the Ministry of Health and the test showed that they had bad chemicals in it.”
Hok Sengkim pointed to several dozen barrels of the US-made chemical Kelnoodliser K200.
He said the company now uses the chemical instead of borax to enable rice grains to stick together to form noodle paste.
Though the chemical costs over $1 per kg compared with less than $0.01 for local borax-laced adhesive agents, he said, “I do not trust local producers of the chemicals.”
The director of the Municipal Health Department Veng Thai said Monday that borax use has been widespread in Cambodia and is illegal because it is potentially dangerous.
“If you eat [borax] all the time it causes diarrhea and vomiting. If you eat a lot then it causes death,” he said.
There have been no reported cases of fatal overdoses of borax in Cambodia, but the risk due to industrial accident is enough to justify its ban.
Veng Thai said the municipal health department began training factory managers and market vendors in food safety in 2000.
“The food in Phnom Penh is more safe now,” he said, but added that in the countryside danger remains, especially from pesticide misuse.
“You must wait at least one week after spraying the vegetables with pesticide, but people eat the food right away,” he said.
He also warned of fish sauce and prahok-makers using pesticides.
At Phnom Penh’s Phsar O’Russei, prahok sellers were clearly aware of illegal pesticide use.
“Other sellers use the white powder to keep the fish fresh—customers should be afraid,” said fish seller Meas Sarin.
“My wholesaler knows what is in it,” said seller Vinh Huy. “I don’t even know what kind of fish this prahok is made from.”
Pesticide poisoning can result in chest pains, night sweats, dizziness, vomiting and loss of consciousness according to the UN.
In 2000, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization concluded that 90 percent of Cambodian farmers using pesticides experienced these symptoms due to pesticide mishandling.
No survey has been conducted of the effects on consumers.
A separate report issued jointly by the FAO and World Health Organization in May concluded that Cambodia has a long way to go before it can insure that its food supply is safe.
“Most farmers, fishermen, food processors, food handlers and consumers are still in need of education and training in relation to food safety,” the report stated.
The report noted that there is no coordinated national food surveillance program in place, while food inspection is carried out by four separate ministries that often fail to communicate
“Cambodian legislation does not stipulate training requirements for food inspectors” and inspection lacks “transparency and ethics in enforcement,” the report said.