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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Safety of food a mystery – even to gov’t

Imported food items sit at a market in Phnom Penh
Imported food items sit at a market in Phnom Penh on Monday. Limited surveillance and food-testing standards in the Kingdom could lead to food-borne disease outbreaks. Eli Meixler

Safety of food a mystery – even to gov’t

In Tbong Khmum, an otherwise reportedly healthy 6-year-old girl’s death, after eating snacks suspected to be contaminated, has prompted a local food-poisoning scare and raised larger questions about the safety of Cambodia’s food distribution.

On November 15, three girls in Dambe district started seizing and vomiting, according to the district authorities.

One of the girls was particularly badly affected. After 24 hours of severe gastrointestinal symptoms and convulsing, her parents headed to the provincial hospital, but she died before a doctor could see her, the village chief told the Post.

Though no cause of death has been confirmed, local officials blamed two packaged imported snacks the girls shared hours before becoming ill.

The village chief confiscated the remaining packages for sale, and the provincial Health Department sent samples to labs in Phnom Penh. But after two weeks, the samples failed to test positive for a contaminant, which didn’t surprise the health workers.

“Cambodia doesn’t have lab equipment for checking this kind of sample,” said Keo Vannak, director of the provincial Health Department, adding that the treats have been sent abroad for better analysis.

While questions remain about what caused the girls’ sickness, the village is in a panic about its food supply.

“Our villagers are scared to buy packaged foods,” said Phath Sath, the village chief.

Despite confronting an enormous problem of nutrient wastage through diarrheal diseases – which kill millions annually – there is no “coordinated program of food surveillance and little analytical data regarding microbiological or chemical contamination of food” in Cambodia, the government says.

In the absence of clearly defined food safety practices, the distribution of unsafe or contaminated foods can occur unchecked, several government officials, food safety consultants and academics warned.

More than 200 diseases are spread through food, and tales of food-borne outbreaks in Cambodia aren’t uncommon, though epidemiological data and investigations are rare.

“We don’t have much food safety data,” said Dim Theng, lab director at Camcontrol, which is tasked with overseeing food imports. “We want to implement international standards . . . but we have such limited capacity and a lack of expertise in food safety.”

In ASEAN, Cambodia is considered to have the fewest formal restrictions on imports of food, according to the US Foreign Commercial Service.

Though Cambodia implemented a law on the management and quality of food safety in 2000, it does not go into much depth.

In the absence of a stringent food safety regime, the country is subject to possible “food dumping”, where products that might be rejected by the customs in other countries could be admitted entry to Cambodia, Camcontrol said.

Cambodia is a net importer of food but little gets tested, according to the Food Safety Bureau of the Ministry of Health.

“Our labs can check for microbial hazards only, so E coli or botulism or that kind of thing,” said Hoksrun Aing, chief of the Food Safety Bureau, adding that they cannot test for other contaminants such as pesticides, heavy metals or toxic fungi.

Food samples are periodically taken from the markets, however, where up to 60 per cent of produce is supplied from Vietnam, Thailand and China, according to Camcontrol.

About 2,000 samples were taken last year, according to Theng, Camcontrol’s lab director. Of the samples taken, 148 tested for above the internationally recommended standards for contaminants.

Thirty-two came up positive for borax, a dangerous chemical banned as a food additive but that has nonetheless been found in Cambodia’s noodles, meatballs, sausages, seafood and dried fish.

Other contaminants included arsenic and formaldehyde.

In 2010, the Royal Academy of Cambodia brought vegetable samples to Japan for testing with specialised equipment and found extremely high rates of pesticide contamination on kale, cauliflower, cabbage, bok choy and other vegetables.

But even “just a little bit is very dangerous”, said Seang Huy, a researcher at the Royal Academy.

A draft food safety law that has been in the works since 2004 is anticipated to be passed next year, however.

“[Food safety] has become a lot better,” said Phan Oun, depty director general of Camcontrol. “But we still have a long way to go in strengthening our capacity.”

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY KHOUTH SOPHAK CHAKRYA

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