A Guidance Note from the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) and the Central Institute of Fisheries Technology (CIFT) states that formalin is a common adulterant used it to extend the storage life of fresh or chilled fish, as well as to doctor the appearance to give an impression of freshness.
CIFT has reported the presence of these chemicals in freshly marketed fish, inter-state fish consignments and even in ice used during transportation.
Although the amount of formalin in fish has been known to decrease over time in storage, it cannot be completely removed.
The guidelines further warn that the consumption of fish adulterated with formalin can cause abdominal discomfort, vomiting, renal injury and other serious adverse health conditions.
The guidelines recommend that consumers wash fish thoroughly with running tap water, as formalin is soluble in water, and to cook fish thoroughly — to an internal temperature of about 75 degrees Celsius or above.
Parties involved in trade (including retailers) are reminded to source food products from “credible sources” and to refrain from using any unapproved chemical or additive, including formalin, during any stage of storage, transportation or supply.
The guidelines also recommend the “good practice” of screening fish for formaldehyde content during procurement, to be safe.
Over all, traders are encouraged to ensure the integrity of the product throughout the supply chain, and to “ensure that cold chain or proper icing is practiced while transporting fish and shellfish through longer distances”.
The guidelines also recommended the use of a test kit that will soon be commercially available.
Test kits available soon
Food safety officers made the detections of formalin and, in some cases, ammonia, using a rapid detection kit developed by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research and CIFT (ICAR-CIFT).
The CIFTest Kit comprises a strip of paper and a liquid reagent. To test, the paper is rubbed against the skin of the fish. The reagent is then dropped onto the swabbed paper.
If formalin is detected, the paper will turn blue. If ammonia is detected, depending on the concentration, it will change to green or blue within two minutes.
While the CIFTest Kit has mainly been distributed to and used by government food inspection officials, CIFT recently signed an MoU with Mumbai-based HiMedia Laboratories Pvt Ltd to manufacture the test kits for commercial availability.
CIFT and FSSAI will monitor quality control of the kits.
“While there are many processes that can be done in the laboratories, all of them take time to detect the adulterants. Hence, ICAR-CIFT took the challenge to develop a quick and simple kit that consumers can use,” said CIFT.
The guidelines also advise other key stakeholders, such as enforcement agencies, traders and processors, to use these CIFTest Kits.
The FSSAI cautioned that the kits are but a preliminary test and samples need to be sent to labs for confirmation.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of the World Health Organization (WHO) classifies formaldehyde as “carcinogenic to humans”, with sufficient evidence for causing nasopharyngeal cancer.
Formaldehyde is not permitted for use in foods according to India’s Food Safety and Standards Regulations, 2011.
According to CIFT, the Kerala government is further planning new regulations that mandate stringent action and penalties against those who use adulterants.
Separately, India also recently extended the ban on milk and products containing milk from China, in view of lingering food safety concerns.