Recent data suggests the use of chemicals on food sold in market stalls has not gone down despite education efforts
Photo by: TRACEY SHELTON
A meat vendor in a Phnom Penh market sits at his stall at Central Market. Of 648 market vendors surveyed, some 266 treated their food products with chemicals.
THE application of harmful preservative chemicals to food sold in market stalls remains a threat to consumers despite efforts - some dating back more than a decade - by doctors and other officials to discourage their use.
Food vendors often use chemicals including pesticides and hydrochloric acid either to preserve food or to make it more visually appealing to customers, said Chhouv Kong Phally, director of the Health Promotion Program at the Ministry of Health, who said he's periodically visited markets since 1995 to warn about the health dangers chemicals pose. These include everything from minor ailments like headaches and diarrhoea to life-threatening diseases, notably cancer, he said.
While public awareness of these dangers has increased, he said, the chemicals themselves are still relatively prevalent. A 2008 study by CamControl officials found that of 648 Phnom Penh vendors surveyed, 266 treated their food with chemicals. Of 273 products included in the survey, chemicals were used on 121 of them, representing a decrease of less than three percent since 2007.
"We see that people understand and are careful to avoid chemicals when they buy food or eat meals [in restaurants], but what worries us is that some food in Phnom Penh [markets] still has chemicals," he said.
"I think sellers should be honest with buyers and should show more appreciation of the value of life and health," he said.
During a break between classes one afternoon last week, a group of students at the Royal University of Phnom Penh discussed their day-to-day efforts to avoid foods that have been chemically treated.
Phuong Chhunleang, 23, said he only became concerned about chemicals recently. Before, he said, he did not think the average farmer or vendor would bother to pay for the harmful preservatives.
He said he now realises that farmers have an economic incentive to do so, as the chemicals can reduce the amount of food that spoils before it is sold.
"Now I am worried about eating food that is sold in the market because I feel I am making my life shorter and shorter," he said.
He said consumers need to be vigilant in screening out chemicals from their diets, as the government has not launched a concerted effort to eliminate their use.
"I want the relevant ministry to be strict and control the chemicals used in food," he said.
Asked about his personal techniques, he said, "I don't have great methods to reduce chemicals from meat and vegetables. But I know from my friends that before I eat a vegetable, it is good to soak it in lemon juice or put salt on it."
But Chhouv Kong Phally said salt would only reduce the concentration of a preservative by 10 to 20 percent.
Keang Leak, the market chief at O'Russei Market, said vendors cooperate with CamControl officials in their weekly efforts to screen food and vegetables sold there.
"I started to focus on this problem in 1999 because I realised then that nearly 100 percent of sellers used chemicals in their food, including in meat, vegetables, noodles, sausage, meatballs, fish paste and palm sugar," he said.
"Today, I can say that we have been largely successful in removing chemicals from their goods, and I am proud of the sellers in my market," he said.
Keo Phanha, 31, a vendor at a market in Takeo province, said she has no way of knowing whether the food she sells has been treated with chemicals.
But she said officials should not blame vendors for the use of chemicals because food is often treated by suppliers or by the factories in which it is made.
"We are very careful, but what can we do if we can't know which food has been treated?" she said.