The Jakarta Post, Jakarta/Bogor
Jakartans have not taken kindly to the news from the Jakarta Food and Drug Office (BB-POM) that formaldehyde is being poured into foods, such as tofu, noodles and salted fish, to keep it fresher, longer.
Days after the announcement of the high content of the mortuary preservative in certain foods, tofu vendors saw a drop in sales and sidewalk eateries found customers were avoiding fried tofu and noodles.
""At first I didn't know why people weren't buying my tofu anymore ... Really, I don't sell tofu with formaldehyde,"" a tofu vendor at Kebayoran Lama traditional market in South Jakarta told The Jakarta Post on Thursday.
Despite the BB-POM's assurance that the warning did not apply to all tofu, noodles and salted fish sold at traditional markets and supermarkets, its report on the high content of formaldehyde in more than half of the samples taken from 50 markets in Greater Jakarta and Banten between November and December, has made people go to great lengths to avoid the chemicalized foods.
""Almost all traders in Bogor's traditional markets sell salted fish treated with formaldehyde,"" the Bogor Agribusiness Agency's fishery division head Robert Hasibuan said, noting that at least 20 samples of salted fish from the markets tested positive for formaldehyde.
He has ordered traders to stop selling formaldehyde-treated fish and refuse produce from suppliers that use formaldehyde.
Huzna Zahir, an executive of the Indonesian Consumers Foundation (YLKI) -- which exposed the same issue a decade ago -- blamed the BB-POM for causing confusion by not providing clearer information
""They say tofu, but which kind? There is Chinese tofu, Sumedang tofu and Bandung tofu, and I know from producers that the last two kinds aren't usually treated with formaldehyde,"" she said.
The Association of Indonesian Food and Beverages Industries (GAPMMI) said small-scale industries were suffering due to the non-specific news reports.
""I'm certain that only a few of them use formaldehyde, yet all 950,000 small- and medium-scale food producers, who supply 70 percent of the country's processed food needs, are taking the blame,"" GAPMMI chairman Thomas Darmawan was quoted by Detik.com as saying on Wednesday.
Formaldehyde is a chemical widely used in fertilizer, plywood, industrial fungicide, and as a preservative in mortuaries and medical laboratories. Its use here to delay the decay and molding of food is due to its low price and availability.
Formaldehyde can have enormously neurodegenerative effects, including seizures, headaches, nausea, depression, convulsions and loss of vision.
Without laboratory testing, Huzna said, it was difficult to say offhand which products were formaldehyde-treated and which were safe to eat.
Separately, PD Pasar Jaya president director Prabowo Soenirman told the directors of traditional markets across the city to look out for foods containing formaldehyde in their markets.
""Currently, we await the help of officers from the BB-POM so we can 'spot the difference',"" he said.
French-based Carrefour Indonesia's corporate affairs director Irawan D. Kadarman said that, as one of the largest retail chains in the city, it would not hesitate to cut off business contracts with suppliers who provided formaldehyde-treated foods.
""We have asked all of our suppliers to give in writing a guarantee that their products are free from illegal substances, if we find that they are not, we will of course stop dealing with them.