We often hear news about food products containing unsafe substances, the latest case involving the alleged discovery by Taiwanese authorities of prohibited preservatives in Indomie instant noodles.
Does this mean we should stay away from instant food?
With this revelation, the Taiwan authorities ordered the withdrawal of these products from shelves. Back home, the business community suspected the case was a result of competition.
Whatever the case, the news worried many Indonesians who frequently consume instant noodles. Indomie, along with many other instant noodle brands, has been the instant meal of choice in Indonesian households for two decades.
The Food and Drug Monitoring Agency (BPOM) immediately issued a clarification, which stated that the noodles sold in Indonesia were safe for consumption. The agency added that the noodles, produced and exported by food giant PT Indofood CBP Sukses Makmur (ICBP), contained methyl p-hydroxtbenzoate, a preservative also used in cosmetics and drugs, but in lower concentrations than the agency’s legal limit.
According to the international body for food standards, Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC), this preservative is safe for human consumption at maximum levels of 1,000 milligrams per kilogram. The BPOM, meanwhile, permits maximum concentrations of 250 milligrams per kilogram.
Of course, this is not the first time tainted food items have caused a brouhaha in the country.
Last year, laboratory tests conducted by the Indonesia Consumers Protection Foundation (YLKI) and University of Indonesia found melamine in 10 of 28 food products tested that were imported from China.
The food products were mostly children’s snacks including cookies, candies and yogurt. They contained melamine, a toxic chemical that is used in fertilizers and plastics, which can cause kidney failure and kidney stones if ingested persistently.
The test results, however, sparked complaints from importers of the products, stating that they had tested the products in neighboring countries and found nothing suspicious.
In early 2008, BPOM also examined 98 infant formula milk varieties, following media reports that several instant milk brands contained Enterobacter sakazakii bacteria.
All of these cases lead us to ask one question: How safe are the food and beverage products sold in this country?
Many food items use additives such as preservatives and flavor enhancers. Speaking about food additives, Ahmad Sulaeman, a professor of food safety and nutrition at the Faculty of Human Nutrition, Bogor Institute of Agriculture (IPB), said Indonesian authorities needed to conduct a lengthy and in-depth series of tests to make sure food ingredients were fit for consumption.
Ahmad, who is the vice president of Public Care Food Safety Association emphasized that food product tests needed to be conducted regularly. A substance may have been acceptable in the past, but could now be viewed as unfit for consumption, depending on latest research.
“Boric acid, for example, used to be allowed but now it is forbidden, as it is recognized as hazardous. Saccharin used to be in the GRAS [Generally Recognized as Safe] category, but now there are strict limits on the use of saccharin,” he said.
However, so far, no detailed scientific research had found whether long-term consumption of the preservative found in Indomie had a negative impact on humans, Ahmad said.
Those who like instant food can still enjoy consuming them, as long as they don’t consume them too frequently, he said. Ahmad encouraged consumers to be more careful in selecting their foods. “Read carefully when you check the label and the packaging. Make sure that the packaging is in good condition and not damaged,” Ahmad said.
“Take a look at the ingredients or composition. Avoid products that have too many chemical ingredients with names that are hard to comprehend. Check the registration numbers, whether it is MD [locally made] or ML [imported product].”
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Checking the expiry date and halal labelling (for Muslims), reading the cooking and storage instructions and writing down customer service numbers is also important.
But many customers were reluctant to check their foods before purchasing.
“I usually only check the expiry date. I’ve never checked the ingredients because I don’t even understand the scientific languages that food companies use,” said Sri Mulyani, an employee who often buys instant noodles and packaged snacks.
“Companies should name all food ingredients using simple language. We, consumers don’t know what the substances are that they use in the products. We usually only find out what they are when BPOM announces that the substance is dangerous,” she said.
Riana Wijayanti, 25, shared similar views.
“The only additive I know is monosodium glutamate [MSG]. I’ve found this is also added to my favorite potato chips, but somehow I keep consuming it because I like the taste,” she said.
Ahmad advised consumers to consume fresh foods.
“We need to go back to consuming homemade food that is cooked by our families, because this is much fresher and at least we can guarantee that it doesn’t contain preservatives.”
Since the instant noodles controversy, Shinta vowed she would lead a healthier lifestyle.
“I always try to cook instead of buying instant food or food from restaurants,” she said.
“Cooking at home is much cheaper, healthier, fresher and more hygienic than buying food elsewhere. Besides, I have a toddler, so I want to give him nutritious food.”
Riana also said she had started reducing her consumption of instant foods.
“I’ve stop buying instant noodles. Even though BPOM has announced that the noodles are safe, I prefer not to consume any instant noodles now,” she said.
“I love instant noodles and any other instant products because they are practical, especially for me because I live in a rented room.”
Riana said that she would try to eat more healthy and fresh foods, such as fruits and vegetables.
BPOM officers have frequently said the institution conducted regular examinations of food products before and after they were sold, and assured consumers that products that did not comply with quality, ingredient and nutrient requirements could not be sold.
But why do such cases continue to emerge?
Ahmad said there was a lack of manpower involved in food monitoring.
The 1996 Food Law, for instance, stipulates that producers found to have used restricted food substances or overusing particular materials can face maximum penalties of five years’ imprisonment and fines of up to Rp 600 million (US$67,000).
“But this regulation is difficult to enforce in Indonesia, especially among small industries, because small businesses receive no training in food safety,” Ahmad said.
“Besides, some say if no consumers filed complaints, there would be no law enforcement. Another factor is that public awareness [about food safety] remains low.”
Ahmad said that Indonesia had a complete set of laws on food safety, ranging from regulations on food and food safety, labeling and advertising, to food safety for restaurant owners. The regulations, however, were poorly implemented, especially when it came to monitoring small industries, he said.
“The surveillance system plays a crucial role in food product monitoring, but the problem is there are not enough food inspectors. Throughout Indonesia there are probably less than 10,000 inspectors in total,” he said.