Reluctance to complain spells danger | Sunday Observer

Reluctance to complain spells danger

Unsuspecting consumers who patronize low cost eateries to save a few bucks would do well to take a closer look at the food they eat , CAA officials warned, noting that there was hard evidence to show that most of the food served in these dubious eateries were laced with dangerous toxic substances leading to serious health impacts, including cancer.” Many of those who patronize these humble wayside boutiques are not choosy . All they want is a hot meal at a price they can afford.

Never mind that it is served by bare bodied servers in the most unhygienic surroundings, the only time they sit up and take notice is when they have to rush out to the nearest toilet to vomit out the contents or rush to the nearest latrine once the meal has been consumed.

Ingesting this contaminated food over a long period of time, should not be taken lightly, health officials emphasized. “ They contain a cocktail of toxic substances, from chemicals used for industrial use, to coconut oil mixed with palm oil, or sodium hydroxide . Others have introduced quantities of already used coconut oil into what was being sold as ‘ pure coconut oil’ a health official said.


Commenting on an emerging trend , Public Health Inspector Lal Kumara from the Food Control Unit of the Health Ministry said, “They are using recycled coconut oil. We carried out some inspections and obtained 1,000 samples from Gas Works street following complaints by those who had patronized these outlets, that the food had tasted bitter. We have given the samples for testing, to our labs and are awaiting the results. Food Act of 1980, section 26 has laid out specific minimum standards with regard to the use ofbarrels used for storing coconut oil they must be food grade containers”, he stressed.

“What we are experiencing is an explosion of contaminated food all over the country. No matter where we go, most of the food we eat, leak some form of chemical poisons into our bodies which is harmful. Starting at the point when natural compost is substituted for chemical fertilizer and pesticides to enable plant growth, to carbide to ripen fruits and quicken plant growth, this cocktail of chemical substances explode in a pile of toxic matter as they finally hit our bodies via the food chain,” an unnamed health officer said.

So what has caused this toxic explosion in our food? What were the authorities doing to prevent it spreading?

When the Sunday Observer put this question to the Chairman, Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) Hasitha Thilakeratne in a telephone interview his reply was that it was the responsibility of the Food Control Unit of the Health Ministry.

“The Food Act of 1980 section 26 comes under their purview. They are thus directly responsible for carrying out inspections relating to sub quality food.

However, he was quick to add, “That does not mean the CAA is shirking its responsibility as this is an issue that concerns public health as a whole. For our part we do our own routine food inspections which are stepped up ahead and during festive seasons.

During these inspections, Food Inspectors are sent to several food outlets, including supermarkets to examine the products on their shelves and take samples of the food served.

They also inspect the premises, the storage of food and how the food is cooked. If any food outlet is found wanting in minimum standards of hygienic food our inspectors are empowered to take the offenders to courts.”

Coconut oil sold in barrels

He said , “The issue is not with packeted coconut oil but what was sold in jerrycans or barrels. Most reputed millers have their own system where they ensure the oil they send to the market is pure and unadulterated. However, somewhere down the line manipulation takes place in unpacketed oil when dishonest vendors of food adulterate this oil with vegetable ( mostly palm oil) in order to cut down their costs due to the prohibitive prices of coconut.

Coconut oil mafia

This has posed a big problem for us. If a regulation was to be passed insisting that all oil commercially sold be packeted, it would raise the price of coconut oil and put it beyond the reach of the poor consumer. So, as a first step we have published a gazette notification informing producers and manfacuturers of unpacketed oil that they must indicate the brand of oil they are selling, give the expiry date, address of manufacturer, and if the oil has a mix of some other oil besides what it claims to be ( e.g. coconut oil contains 30% palm oil) they should mention the exact percentage of this adulteration mix as well”.

The Sunday Observer reliably learns that the CAA has conducted over 18,000 raids and collected fines up to Rs 73 million rupees this year.

Specialist in Public Health attached to the Food Control Unit of the Health Ministry, Dr Sapumal Dhanapala, is currently on a mission to wage an all out war on what he calls, the ‘ Coconut oil Mafia’.

“When it comes to cooking oil, especially, coconut oil, the Coconut Board has a system to ensure that only the purest coconut oil is distributed to the market.

But, what is happening is that down the line, unscrupulous traders take short cuts to save some bucks by introducing other substances that are not only harmful but a deliberate attempt to cheat the public. The most common ingredient they mix with coconut oil is palm oil.

This is disgraceful as they are deliberately duping the public, who believe they are buying genuine pure coconut oil for which they have paid higher prices,” he said.

Stressing that coconut oil was a hundred percent local product, he said most other oils were imported. “The companies that export them are expected to produce documentation from recognized authorities in their own country. However, there is always a possibility there could be some adulteration taking place before they are shipped.


To make doubly sure that the oil has not been tampered with, he said, “We do random sample testing of these products in our own labs at entry points. If the samples don’t meet our stringent standards under the Food Act, they will not be allowed into the country,” he said.

Asked how sub quality cooking oil continues to flood the open market despite precautions to prevent this, he said, “There are so many new oils coming into the country and it impossible to test samples of all of them at our labs at entry points to the country. “

Thosais or kottu roti

So, what does he see as a solution?

“Most of the oil ends up in congested places like Colombo, where you find hundreds of small eateries mushrooming in crowded alleys and areas such as the Pettah and Gas Works Street.

The public can play a vital role to stop this. They should complain to us if they come across sub quality adulterated cooking oil, especially, coconut oil, so that we can send our inspectors and take immediate action to warn or close down the eatery, if the samples have been found to be sub quality.”

He laments that although he has been with the Food Unit of the Health Ministry for the past three years after being transferred from the Family Health Bureau, he has not received a single complaint from the public up to now.

“Why is it they don’t bother to complain when they see something that affects their own health? They must start thinking differently and prevent this practice of dishonest traders who are deliberately putting their lives in peril,” he emphasized.

He said, most oil sold in barrels contained oils made at cottage industry level. “If we can educate these people on how adulterated oil can harm their health, half our problems could be solved,” he said.

“ They must be taught that if they use open barrels they must be food grade barrels and they must not recycle the barrels used for industrial waste in which no amount of washing can flush out the toxicity they contain,” he stressed.

On the question of improving the environment in which most eateries operate, he said, all owners of boutiques serving food should provide a uniform to food handlers .

Views of a street eatery customer

We finally spoke to a regular customer of a low cost eatery in Slave Island. R. Silva has all his meals starting with breakfast to lunch to a carry away dinner parcel from this eatery for the past six years and even when alerted of the potential health impacts of eating from this unhygienic boutique surrounded by dog and cat litter and no running water except a pipe attached to a tube well outside , he says he will not go anywhere else. “

What other place can offer me a plate of string hoppers with a gravy for Rs. 40, lunch with fish or chicken and vegetables for Rs. 100 and a couple of thosais or kottu roti for Rs. 90? asks this father of three who works late hours in a nearby fax company earning a handsome salary of just 12,000 rupees, with no perks.

At 58 he says he is happy he is still able to work and says his colleagues too often visit the same eatery even thuogh they are fully aware of its unhygienic condition.

“ If we complain, and the boutique closes down, we would have to look elsewhere which may not be convenient for us,” he says.

To conclude, we quote a nutritionist who said, “ Your health is the best gift you have. Look after it as best as you can while you live. Ingesting sub quality food mixed with harmful chemicals can shorten your life by many years”.

What do our readers think?

Over to Citizen Perera