Health and custom authorities are concerned that an influx of chemically laced fish have found their way into Cambodian markets and could cause illness or death.
Customs officials in Takeo province confiscated 4 tons of dried fish coming across the Vietnamese border at the Phnom Den checkpoint and found the fish had been treated with harmful chemical preservatives, according to Mam Seng, chief of the Phnom Penh municipal fisheries department.
Another 7 tons of treated fish were found at Phsar O’Russei, where vendors were ordered not to sell it, Mam Seng said.
Some of the confiscated fish was tested by the Ministry of Health, which found it had been treated with the chemicals borax and formalin, both of which are harmful if swallowed, said Veng Thai, director of the Phnom Penh municipal health department.
Borax is a hardening chemical sometimes used in small amount in the preparation of rice deserts. Formalin is a formaldehyde solution used in the production of paper, in tanning, textiles and other industries—but not in food preservation.
“This food can kill us,” Veng Thai said. “Borax is in the dried fish. It may just make people sick if they eat a little, but if people eat a lot they will die.”
The chemicals were likely added to the fish in Vietnam, then traded back across the border at prices cheaper than other suppliers, officials said.
Borax and formalin are also sometimes used by vendors to hasten the ripening of certain fruits, which will look fresher, for longer, when treated, Veng Thai said.
But it can also be very harmful if eaten, causing diarrhea, stomach problems, typhoid fever and neck fatigue, Veng Thai said.
He estimated that thousands of people could be at a health risk as a result of the chemicals, though no hard data was yet available.
Officials have warned vendors at Phsar O’ Russei not to sell chemically treated fish, but they have not yet been authorized to seize the fish.
“We are awaiting a decision from the [Ministry of Interior], what to do with the fish,” Mam Seng said.
“I think we should destroy them as soon as possible. Otherwise, vendors might distribute and sell to poor people in remote areas,” he added.
This was the first time such kinds of fish products had been discovered crossing the border from Vietnam, officials said. Customs agents became suspicious of a load of fish crossing into Cambodia because there was no smell and no flies, Mam Seng said.
“It is too dangerous for our people. It is not a food to eat, but it is waste to eat,” he said. “I’m pretty upset that our country is like a dump site for a flood of waste.”
Recently, Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara met with vendors and other officials and asked them to stop the chemical treatment of market foods, especially fruits.
The Ministry of Health had not yet made any public announcements regarding foods treated with dangerous chemicals, said Mam Bun Heng, secretary of state for the ministry. The ministry has asked police to decide what to do with the tainted fish, he said.