Carcinogens in Coconut Oil
Coconut oil has been used in Sri Lanka replacing sesame oil after the population drifted to the South-West following the invasion of Raja Rata by Kalinga Magha in 1215. Initially it was made in homes using fresh scraped coconut. This practice was continued well into the latter half of the last century.
It is the fungus contained, in not properly dried coconut kernel called copra used for the extraction of coconut oil on a mass-scale in oil mills which contains the carcinogenic aflatoxin. Therefore, the problem of carcinogens in coconut oil has arisen with large-scale production of coconut oil.
It is common knowledge that coconut oil containing impurities such as fungi goes rancid and there are age-old methods of removing such impurities such as keeping in the sun, putting raw coconut milk, curry leaves, onion, garlic or just plain water on boiling oil for the impurities to be removed by evaporation.
These methods are relevant even today just as it is a must to boil manioc with the utensil lid open. It is advisable to do so when cooking even vegetables that can contain agro-chemicals such as weedicides, pesticides and chemical fertiliser. This practice should extend to rice, gram, green gram, peas and lentils also as chemical preservatives are added when storing these in silos.
Today, the presence of the carcinogen aflatoxin in mass produced coconut oil imported in bulk to be packed under a number of brand names is a huge problem that has to be tackled by authorities such as the Sri Lanka Standards Institution (SLSI).
However, Director General of SLSI Dr. Siddhika Senaratne has said there are many food items in the market which contain aflatoxin and the identity of companies importing them could not be divulged as certain manufacturing processes could even collapse if it was done. She has said the SLSI has no authority to ban the import of products but can only recommend that such products be re-exported or black-list them.
Dr. Senaratne has said further that in the case of imported coconut oil, a Sri Lanka Standards certificate is not mandatory and that only one company has obtained SLS certification. She has also said that for several years the SLSI has been carrying out its duties and alerting Customs of sub-standard products being imported to the country. In a research conducted to find out whether dried chillies contained aflatoxin, it was found that many chilli samples had it and so several companies were not given SLS certification, she has said.
Sri Lanka Standards Institution set up by the Bureau of Ceylon Standards Act No. 38 of 1964 is a regulatory institution mainly to protect consumers from unethical business and trade practices. It is in this context that the Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA) has lodged a complaint against the SLSI Director General in response to recent statements she had made claiming that not only coconut oil but many other food items in the local market contained harmful chemicals.
GMOA Assistant Secretary Dr. Samantha Ananda has said that it could be seen from what Dr. Senaratne says the SLSI has neglected its original purpose of protecting consumers. “Checking and making sure that consumer goods in the market were of standard quality is the main duty of the SLSI. It is not their job to safeguard businessmen and companies who produce contaminated goods. If the Director General of SLSI claimed that many products in the market contain harmful chemicals, it is clear the SLSI neglected the objective of the institution,” he has said.
In a further development, the Sinhale Jathika Sanvidanaya has also lodged a complaint with the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) requesting an immediate investigation in connection with the statement made by SLSI DG Dr. Senaratne to a private television channel.
The complaint states that while participating in an interview with a private television channel recently, the Director General had made several concerning statements without considering public health, protection, comfort and morality, and thereby violated Sections 262, 277 and 297 of the Penal Code.
Meanwhile, the Government has launched an investigation into the controversial statement made by the SLSI Director General, Dr. Senaratne that several food items in addition to coconut oil contain carcinogenic substances but the names of such products cannot be revealed, according to Co-Cabinet Spokesperson Keheliya Rambukwella.