Sunday, September 23, 2018

Houseflies Become Saviors

The presence of houseflies on food would be repulsive in most parts of the world because of their association with decay and rot. 

But in Uganda, those same houseflies are increasingly turning into saviors, serving as a test of which meat to eat – and which meat to avoid. 

A growing number of butchers are smearing meat with the toxic preservative formalin. As a result, local food experts and health officers in the East African country are advising consumers to visit only those shops where houseflies hover.

Image credit: News Point Magazine, January 22, 2018

Formalin is an aqueous solution of the chemical compound Formaldehyde. Basically between 35% and 40% solution of formaldehyde in water make formalin. It is used in the preservation of biological specimens and embalming in order to delay their decomposition. 

And it is used across the world as a preservative of dead bodies. It also repels houseflies. 

But a spate of investigations in the country has revealed that deviously dishonest butchers in Uganda are using formalin to preserve meat and deceive customers. 

In other parts of the world, the fight against food-borne diseases is increasingly going high-tech – but in Uganda, it’s back to basics. 

The presence of the otherwise detested houseflies at a butcher shop indicates that the meat is fresh, authorities are telling buyers, even if other conditions remain less than hygienic. 

At a time when Uganda’s economy is sagging – the economy has grown at just 4 percent the past five years compared to 7 percent for over a decade previously – houseflies are emerging as Uganda’s most effective tool to tackle what doctors say is a life-threatening menace. 

“Houseflies swarming on meat is an indicator that such meat is not treated with deadly drugs”, said Stanley Kiyemba, Kampala public health official. 

Uganda’s turn to houseflies as a sign of safety rather than of filth follows exhaustive checks by the Kampala City Council Authority, the Uganda National Bureau of Standards, the police and the Ministry of Health. The tests confirmed that there was formalin in meat sampled from 95 out of 125 butcher shops. 

In Kampala’s city center, meat sampled from 12 butchers had an average of 15 milligrams of formalin. The levels were 10 milligrams in the suburb of Kireka, 20 milligrams in the neighborhood of Ntinda and 22 milligrams in the Wandegeya area. 

Those hazardous levels were shocking even for seasoned health professionals, says Vivian Nakalika, spokesperson for the Ministry of Health. 

“It is unfortunate”, she says. “We in the Ministry of Health condemn such acts, and we are cooperating with other authorities to arrest those doing it”. 

And they did. The Ugandan reported that Kampala City public health authorities had arrested meat retailers following reports that butchers are using unauthorized preservatives in excessively large amounts to preserve meat for as long as three weeks (September 23, 2018).

Consuming food preserved with formalin can result in chronic poisoning and can damage kidneys or cause cancer in the long run, according to the health ministry. 

The practice of treating meat with formalin and the push to get consumers to welcome the presence of houseflies near butcher shops is not only confined to Kampala but in many other towns and cities too. 

It is hoped this unsafe stunt by unscrupulous butchers is nipped in the bud – before it gets out of hand. 

The East African gave this advice on how to spot 'safe' meat sans houseflies: “To be surer that your meat was not treated with the unspeakable stuff, it should be meat with smell. The one with formalin apparently has no smell. And it should generally not look nice. The one with formalin is an enticing red, very smooth and with a hardened layer on the outside” (January 16, 2018). 

Anyway, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

It’s not limited to Uganda, BTW. 

Formalin is said to be commonly used in Bangladesh. Local stores and fresh markets often sell vegetables, fruits, and fishes that have been treated with formalin to keep them fresh (The Independent, Bangladesh, December 04, 2017). 

In India, there was a scare about fish which was found to have been preserved with formalin (The Times of India, July 18, 2018).

Formalin in fish. Image credit: News Odisha, India @

The fact is we can no longer assume that the food we consume is ever safe!

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