Outbreak raises food-safety alert
A recent spate of botulism cases shows that government measures are failing to protect consumers
A botulism outbreak has been confirmed by the Public Health Ministry following the hospitalisation of 161 people in the northern province of Nan for food poisoning after they ate dishes containing fermented bamboo shoots at a village feast earlier this month. The case of food-borne botulism attracted the attention of public health experts who rushed to investigate and provide emergency medical assistance to the people, who consumed food laced with the toxin produced by clostridium botulinum.
A person exposed to the botulinum toxin suffers from vomiting, diarrhoea, difficulty swallowing, a dry mouth and muscle weakness, while a serious case of botulism can result in death, which is most often caused by respiratory failure. Because serious botulism outbreaks are rare, no stockpile of the anti-toxin serum required for treatment is maintained in this country, which means it must be imported from other countries. The Public Health Ministry has set aside a special fund of over Bt30 million for medical treatment.
Thanks to public health officials' timely response, there have been no fatalities among the patients afflicted with botulism poisoning so far. The fermented bamboo shoots believed to have caused the outbreak were from a batch of locally-produced preserved food. Officials have yet to intercept and confiscate the remaining fermented bamboo shoots suspected of being contaminated with the botulinum toxin.
Such a public health nightmare should serve as a lesson on how authorities must not only step up preparedness for emergency situations that can arise at any time, but also redouble their effort to generally improve and strictly enforce food-safety standards.
In 2004 the government launched a campaign to improve food safety, but there is little evidence to suggest that the food that people in this country eat everyday has become much safer. Fruit and vegetables are laced with insecticides, meat is contaminated with harmful residues from livestock pharmaceuticals, preserved food is tainted with germs and microbes and seafood is loaded with heavy metals.
The government set an ambitious target to implement a comprehensive food-safety drive to ensure that food products sold and consumed in the domestic market meet internationally accepted standards. But it has failed miserably to live up to its lofty goal.
The issue of food safety represents some of the most cynical double standards in this society. Unsafe food continues to affect the diets of most consumers in this country, a country that is ranked as one of the world's major food producers and exporters. The highest-quality Thai food products, free from harmful contaminants, are reserved for export and well-heeled domestic consumers who can afford to pay top prices. That leaves the majority of Thais at the mercy of potentially harmful practices of unscrupulous food-producers and sellers.
The government's grand vision to promote food safety may be motivated by good intentions - but is not backed by political will. The food-safety campaign is under-funded, undermanned and poorly equipped. There are too few laboratory facilities required to carry out thorough and comprehensive food-safety testing and inspections, which must cover all communities in all parts of the country.
The government is not putting its money where its mouth is.
Under the food-safety drive, the government has banned dangerous substances including beta agonist, borax, formalin, salicylic acid, hydrosulphite, insecticides, chloramphenicol and nitrofuran, which cause illnesses ranging from food poisoning and diarrhoea to more serious diseases like cancer, heart disease and hypertension.
People found guilty of producing, importing or selling food containing a harmful amount of such banned substances are liable to fines of between Bt20,000 and Bt50,000 and jail terms of up to two years.
But without laboratory facilities to test and verify samples of potentially unsafe food, there is no way that existing laws and regulations can actually be enforced with any consistency to make an impact in raising the standard of food safety, except perhaps in Bangkok and some other major cities.
It cannot be emphasised enough that significant improvement in food safety is the kind of investment that pays for itself in terms of savings on medical bills and better health for us all.