Over the last couple of weeks, there have been several reports from various parts of the country of fish being contaminated with formalin. Formalin is a solution containing formaldehyde, water and methanol. It is primarily used in mortuaries to embalm bodies, and also as an antiseptic. Unfortunately, of late, in India, it is also being used to keep fish fresh, despite the serious safety issues.
According to a report on NDTV, formalin laced fish was seized in Guwahati in Assam, and the Indian Express reported that nearly 10,000 kg of formalin laced fish was seized in Kerala’s Kollam district. As a result of these reports, the Government of Assam banned fish imports from other states for 10 days, and ordered that anyone found violating the ban would be punished with imprisonment for between 2 and 7 years and a fine upto Rs.10,00,000/-.This reaction by the Government of Assam is completed warranted because formalin has been classified as a carcinogen by the American National Toxicology Program (NTP), the International Agency for Research on Cancer, and the National Cancer Institute.
The presence of formalin in fish is such a major food safety issue that the Central Institute of Fisheries Technology, Kochi (CIFT) has designed a kit for consumers to test whether or not the fish they’ve bought is contaminated. The kit contains a chemical reagent and testing strips. In order to check for formalin contamination, a person has to first scrape a testing strip on the skin of the fish, and then add a drop or two of the reagent. The presence, and quantity, of formalin in the fish is determined by the change in the colour of the strip. Once the strip changes colour, it has to be compared to the colour chart that comes with the kit to check how much formalin the fish contains. If the strip turns light pink, then the fish is safe (at least as far as formalin contamination is concerned), but if it turns green, and then a dark blue, then the fish has between 20-100 mg of formalin per kg, making it unsafe for consumption. Unfortunately, while the kit was supposed to hit the market this month, I was not able to find any vendor online, nor was I able to find any other testing kit. Hopefully, that will change soon.
Formalin contamination of fish is a major food safety issue in India right now, and consumers must take precautionary measures to ensure the fish they eat is safe. People should buy fish only from a reputed cold storage, at least until the CIFT’s testing kit becomes available. Once the kits are out in the market, I strongly suggest that people use the kit to test all fish they buy.
It’s better to be safe than sorry!