One thing that usually impresses first-time visitors to Indonesia are the ubiquitous food vendors. In the evenings, food sellers open shop on the roadside so you don’t have to worry about going hungry — as long as you’re not too demanding about hygiene and safety standards.
What’s wonderful about street food served at a warung (stall) is that it represents a slice of a certain region. Vendors usually hail from different regions across Indonesia, or they are locals but offer specialties from other regions just to be different.
To ensure food safety, once in a while the Food and Drug Monitoring Agency (BPOM) conducts unannounced inspections. On various occasions, they have found recalcitrant vendors serving food with traces of forbidden chemicals, notably formalin in certain foods like tofu, noodles, chicken and fish. Meatballs are combined with borax to enhance the bouncy texture.
During several inspections, the agency has found a textile dye called Rhodamine B added to es dawet (iced beverage with rice flour jelly, palm sugar and coconut milk) and sago pearls to enliven the color. The sweet drink is popular among children.
BPOM inspectors usually target street vendors and grocers in traditional markets. The BPOM educates small business owners and food manufacturers about food safety. Many of them still lack knowledge and awareness about hazardous chemicals.
“They don’t see how formalin can cause cancer and other diseases in the long-term,” said acting BPOM deputy on processed food monitoring Tetty Helfery Sihombing. “They only know that the substances make their food products last longer.”
Inexperienced food manufacturers can make innocent mistakes, such as not knowing the difference between textile and wood coloring products in regard to safe food dyes.
The BPOM imposes sanctions on food manufacturers that intentionally and repeatedly use hazardous materials in their products, but it takes a different approach to small food businesses, especially those caught using harmful materials for the first time.
“These people need to be trained and told how to do it right. If we ban them from operating right away, they will lose their source of living,” Tetty said. “If we find food vendors on the street or near schools using harmful substances and just put them in jail, that wouldn’t make sense.”
In the past, the agency ran a project that made formalin bitter. The food products, like tofu and fish, would taste awful. It was expected that this strategy would stop people from buying the products and stop the sellers from using the chemical.
“But that was only experimental. We have yet to require all formalin makers to do the same,” said Tetty. “We did consider expanding the project so people would no longer use formalin.”
Figure 1 Safety checks: A member of the Food and Drug Monitoring Agency is conducting a food safety inspection of Lebaran gift parcels in Central Jakarta. (JP/Donny Setiawan)
The BPOM also mobilizes campaigns at the grassroots to promote awareness on food safety by delivering educational programs to local communities and hosting events at car free days. The agency also shares tips and information about food safety through infographics on its Instagram accounts.
The most common toxic materials found during street food raids include formaldehyde, borax and textile dyes.
Formaldehyde, the saturated solution of which is known as formalin, is an embalming chemical. Colorless and with a very strong smell, formaldehyde is commonly used as a preservative and disinfectant. It is also used in plywood products. Formaldehyde can be corrosive to mucous membranes and the digestive system. Exposure to high levels of formaldehyde in the long-term can cause myeloid leukemia and cancers of paranasal sinuses, the nasal cavity and nasopharynx.
Borax is used in cleaning products, insecticides and fungicides. If ingested, the chemical is toxic to humans. Borax poisoning includes symptoms like malaise, diarrhea, vomiting, fever and headaches, among other things. In the long-term, it can damage the central nervous system, kidney and liver.
Prolonged consumption of textile dyes can cause serious health effects. Rhodamine B can damage the liver and increase the risk of liver cancer, while metanil yellow can cause bladder cancer.
To ensure food safety standards are upheld at all stages of the food supply chain, the BPOM seeks to strengthen partnerships with other institutions and communities.
“In the future we will create an investigative team outside our agency,” said BPOM head Penny Kusumastuti Lukito. “We’ll provide food inspection training to the candidates from local agencies, like the food security agency and the health agency.”
Indonesia, a middle-income country with a population of over 260 million, has a huge market for the large and fast-growing food industry, such as ready-to-eat food businesses, restaurants, supermarkets and street food vendors. But complex and rapidly changing food production and marketing poses tough challenges to policymakers to ensure food safety at any stage of the food supply chain.
Food poisoning outbreaks are still a public health problem in Indonesia. In 2017, the country had 163 cases of foodborne disease outbreaks, according to the Health Ministry.
The World Health Organization’s representative for Indonesia, Paranietharan, echoed the importance of food safety, emphasizing that “access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food is the key to having a healthier and more productive lifestyle.”