Leang Than, director of Bong Tonle Sap Industries prepares to bottle a new batch of fish sauce. Although they have been using iodized salt in production for the past five years, Than says adding additional nutrients such as iron would dissuade customers due to lack of general understanding of the benefits and public fear of chemical additives.
Buoyed by the success of the campaign to fortify salt with iodine, officials are
looking for ways to stoke up fish sauce, noodles and other Cambodian staples.
But in a conference on September 10, few food manufacturers appeared willing to join
the efforts discussed by officials of the private sector, ministries and NGOs.
NGOs have already begun some initiatives with fortifying wheat and instant noodles,
but the food industry is not yet supporting them.
"We need to get the industries on board to foot the bill and add the price to
the product. Subsidized foods are only sustainable as long as the money keeps coming,"
said Dr Omar Dary, an international food fortification specialist who works with
USAID, who spoke at the conference.
"Cambodians face major problems from nutrient deficiency because diet is based
solely on rice," said Dary. He said 60 percent of the population suffers from
anemia, normally caused by iron deficiency. He said deficiencies in vitamins B1 and
B2, and zinc are also widely reported.
He outlined the feasibility for adding iron to fish sauce, vitamin A to sugar, and
other nutrients to instant noodles and wheat. What is needed, he said, are a high
percentage of consumption, affordable cost, and willing manufacturers or importers.
All the factors came together when UNICEF helped launch the iodized salt in 1996.
At the time 17% of Cambodians suffered from goiter, said Mam Borath of the Ministry
of Planning. He said the percentage of the population using iodine salt is now 72.5
% and plans are to reach 90 % of the population.
Despite the success, Borath says Cambodians still face serious problem from nutrient
deficiencies which weaken the immune system, particularly in women and children,
leaving them at risk of many diseases.
Borath said trials are underway to add iron to fish sauce. He said six months of
tests so far have been successful with no noticeable effect on the taste and the
ministry was hopeful of finding a partner to provide funding and sponsorship as a
result of the conference.
But fish sauce producer Leang Than, director of the Bong Tonle Sap Industries, expressed
doubts about additional food fortification programs. He said consumers would need
to be educated about the benefits.
"People are afraid of chemical additives. They don't understand it's good for
them," Than said. He said sales could suffer.
Bong Tonle Sap is one of nine large scale fish sauce companies in the country.
"It's only in the last two years that advertising has educated people about
the benefits of iodine," he said. "Now these products are popular. The
same needs to be done with iron before we could consider adding it," said Than.
He also said that additives to noodles and wheat wouldn't benefit so many people
because these products are not widely consumed. "Personally I don't really eat
those things. But salt is used in everything."
Another reason the salt campaign succeeded was that the additive cost increased the
price of the product by only 0.6%, said Dary, who explained that iron additives would
increase the cost of fish sauce by 16%.
He estimated the maximum population that could be reached through a fish sauce campaign
Many people in rural areas would not benefit because they make their own fish sauce.