Will Aflatoxin scare affect coconut oil consumption?

Thameenah Razeek | Published: 3:17 PM Apr 4 2021
Local Will Aflatoxin scare affect coconut oil consumption?

With the onset of the festive season, serious concerns are raised on the quality of imported coconut oil and other cooking oils available in the market after the sudden revelation made by local coconut oil manufacturers.

While the demand of essential goods has surged notably in the domestic market simultaneously anti-consumer activities have also gone up. As a result of weak government regulation and market monitoring mechanisms, different forces are active in the market making brisk business amid higher demand of goods.  

13 containers

The local coconut oil manufacturers in Dambulla recently dropped a bombshell that 13 containers of imported unrefined coconut oil have been released to the market after the Food Safety Unit of the Ministry of Health confirmed the presence of the potent carcinogen Aflatoxin.

Once again the people of this country have started to pay attention to coconut oil while some are trying to justify the situation; others are standing against the negligence. 

They also emphasised on several occasions that an immediate inquiry should be conducted into the situation, despite the Food Safety Unit informing it to re-export the stocks as it was  unfit for human consumption.

The revelation was made by Convener of the All Ceylon Traditional Coconut Oil Producers' Association, Buddhika de Silva after receiving information from the Colombo Port as well as from internal sources at the Sri Lanka Customs (SLC). De Silva said that they also received information about the 13 containers of carcinogenic coconut oil. 

He showed that more than 20-30 containers are being held under the SLC’s custody for not handing over proper documents to the SLC adding that the latter is waiting till the situation regarding the coconut oil settles, so they can release the consignments through the back door.

Another disclosure of the containers was that local manufacturers reiterated that there are 13 containers belonging to four importers and those containers have been sent out to the market. De Silva questioned as to who will monitor the coconut oil and who will check whether it is carcinogenic. 

The Sri Lanka Standards Institute (SLSI) and the Ministry of Health must announce their stance regarding this and assure consumers that they can celebrate Avurudu in a peaceful manner without entertaining doubts about the food they consume.

Aflatoxin in coconut oil

When the Food Safety Unit of the Ministry of Health inquired they confirmed that the research carried out on the samples of the coconut oil stocks which had caused controversy had showed the presence of a potent carcinogen called Aflatoxin. 

Regardless of the statements divulged by many authorities, Minister of Trade Dr. Bandula Gunawardene said otherwise and dismissed these statements. According to him, the Food Safety Unit of the Ministry of Health has informed the SLC and the relevant companies in writing to immediately re-export the containers and no quantity of the oil should be released to the market for consumption.

Meanwhile, addressing the Media last week Dr. Gunawardena reiterated that the coconut oil containing carcinogens has not been released to the market, but the condition of the 125 samples of un-bottled coconut oil obtained from 25 districts by the Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) is yet to be known. 

In a situation where the status of the coconut oil is still in doubt, the displeasure expressed by many over a responsible Minister making such a contradictory statement created a crisis. Sweeping  the issue under the carpet, the Minister said there was no evidence to show that the coconut oil containing Aflatoxin has been released to the market as blamed by the  Opposition adding that the whole scenario is being politicised. He did not only politicise the whole scenario but also challenged the disclosure made by local authorities and demanded them to come up with evidence to show that substandard coconut oil has been released to the market. 

Contradicting the number of containers

Contradicting the revelation made by de Silva, the SLSI dropped a bombshell saying that there was not just 13 containers but at least 100 containers containing carcinogenic coconut oil. 

While acknowledging that there are actually around 100 containers of imported coconut oil containing carcinogens at the SLC at the moment, SLSI Director General, Dr. Siddhika Senaratne said there are reports referring to 13 containers with coconut oil containing carcinogens that have been imported that contradict the data they have. "The number of containers is more than 13. Normally 25 containers are imported in one consignment. Definitely there are nearly 100 containers of this consignment that has been imported,” Dr. Senaratne said at the same Media briefing.

She further said that 42 coconut oil consignments had been imported this year and six of them have been identified as coconut oil containing carcinogens. These six consignments have been imported by the main three importers.

The explanation

SLSI initially in a press release stated that they were making inquiries regarding four importers. Explaining what had happened, Director General of SLC, Major General (Retd) Vijitha Ravipriya said that on 4 March 2021 the SLSI has informed the SLC that the six consignments of coconut oil of the three importers contain potent carcinogen Aflatoxin. Then, the SLSI has informed the three importers about the status of what they had imported and then the importers had verbally requested to do a second test on the consignments. 

The SLSI team then conducted a second test on the coconut oil consignments and Nushad Perera, Chairman of SLSI, said that samples taken from all the four stocks of coconut oil imported to Sri Lanka had been found to contain carcinogens.

Perera said the samples of the substandard coconut oil consignments have failed a second test and steps will be taken to re-export them. Then SLSI handed over the final report of the second sample test carried out on coconut oil consignments to confirm whether they contained the carcinogen Aflatoxin to Major General Ravipriya.

The tests conducted by the SLSI on the first samples revealed that the stock of coconut oil from the four companies contained toxic chemicals. The tests conducted on the second samples also confirmed that the coconut oil contained the carcinogen Aflatoxin. In the meantime, Ravipriya claimed that the relevant companies have now been instructed to re-export the stock of coconut oil.  

Lack of Space at Customs

Claiming what happened was not new and this has occurred for the last three decades under different circumstances, the Major General said that since SLC does not have enough space in the Customs warehouses, they were forced to send these consignments to warehouses belonging to importers after obtaining a corporate guarantee. 

Even though SLC sent the consignment to warehouses belonging to the importers, Ravipriya assured that they would not approve to release them to the market adding that these importers will have to face legal issues if they released the consignments.

Acknowledging that a void existed over a period by sending containers to importers warehouses before the SLSI gave a certificate of authorisation, Major General Ravipriya said this method has been in practice for more than 20 years and was bacause the Customs Department owned only three warehouses. But the Customs has taken steps to temporarily halt sending containers to importers warehouses and keep them in the Customs warehouse till the situation is brought under control.  

“This creates unwanted issues to the importer, the Customs and the consumer. The importers will have to pay demurrage and it will take a considerable time to release the consignments. But we have nothing to do with it. The situation has been orchestrated in many ways and we have to counter them right now,” he noted.

Other substandard oils

The annual demand for coconut oil in the country is around 180,000 tonnes, of which local coconut oil producers meet about 25,000 tonnes. The remaining 155,000 tonnes is met by importers. These importers also import large quantities of unrefined coconut oil as well as other substitute oils such as palm oil, refine it locally and release it to the market.

Meanwhile, the Matale CAA branch Chief Renuka Kumara during a raid in Dambulla seized two stores selling imported coconut oil and palm oil. The team led by Kumara inspected a large scale coconut oil depot in Dambulla and a large scale coconut oil depot near the Dambulla Economic Centre. It was later revealed that the company had imported the coconut oil without processing any documents. Steps were later taken to seal the stock of coconut oil and palm oil.

Underground storage tanks

A special feature of the site is the underground coconut oil and palm oil storage tanks which were fixed on top contain parts of various dead insects and unfit for human consumption. Kumara and his team took steps to temporarily suspend the sale of oil at that location.

Also, while inspecting another coconut oil wholesale outlet near the Dambulla Economic Centre, it was found that palm oil and coconut oil were mixed at some point during the storage at that location. CAA officials said that the samples will be handed over to the CAA headquarters and will be inspected at a suitable location to determine whether it is suitable for human consumption.

On the cusp of the Sinhala and Tamil New Year, the public of this country are bombarded with the revelation about imported coconut oil and the double standards taken by the Government with regard to this. The brand name of any consumer product sold in the market must display the price and their contents, but it is crystal clear that all these rules have been flouted. 

De Silva also said about 40,000 tonnes of substitute oil was imported to Sri Lanka in January and February and 37,000 tonnes were imported under the tax concessions entailing Rs 10.5 billion.

“As coconut oil manufacturers, we inquired from the Coconut Development Authority (CDA) because it they are the people who should know all about the export and import of coconut related products,” he said.

There is a vast price and quality difference when compared with the coconut oil that is sold at the Supermarkets and that sold by local merchants. The Director General of CDB Dasitha Niroshan said that the difference is because some small scale vendors mix coconut and palm oil,  to sell the product at a lower price. He said the CDA only wants to promote local coconut oil manufacturers and not the importers. Imported coconut oil will be tested by the SLSI and Health Ministry while the CDB will take care of local oil manufacturers. 

Cost depends on quality    

“At least seven to eight coconuts are needed to manufacture a litre of coconut oil and that is why bottled or branded coconut oil costs around Rs 750 while the normal coconut oil sold by small scale merchants is Rs 350. This shows what has actually happened to the quality. That is why we urge the public to purchase coconut oil approved by the CDA. There are seven brands approved by the CDA and we will issue Five Star certificates with the CDA logo once these conditions are met ”, he said. 

Based on five conditions, the CDA will grade the quality of the coconut oil. If the manufacturer is able to get through the five conditions set out , the CDA will give the five-star recognition and the CDA logo. 

The conditions are that the oil should not be mixed,  ensure the oil does not contain any fatty acid and not be rancid, does not contain any toxins, will follow safety measures on using the ingredients and the process.   

Pointing out that the demand for coconut oil in our country is 15,000 tonnes but more than 40,000 tonnes of palm oil has been imported. Nearly 37,000 tonnes enjoyed tax relief, de Silva concluded that the President is working hard to secure foreign exchange to develop local industries but government officials have deceived all these people and turned out to be employees of multinational companies.

Thameenah Razeek | Published: 3:17 PM Apr 4 2021

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