Scaremongering over the safety of Thai rice
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Scaremongering over the safety of Thai rice

The Bangkok Post  “Majority of Thai rice is safe, tests show”:

A quarter of the 46 packed rice brands available in the market tested totally free of chemical residue, while the rest contained different levels – but only 2% was contaminated above the international standard, according to the Thai Foundation for Consumers.

The foundation’s Chaladsue magazine on Tuesday revealed the results of tests jointly conducted with the Biothai Foundation on 46 bags of packed rice of different brands bought from hypermarkets and convenience stores. It reported that 12 of them contained no chemical residue – or 26.1% of the total sample.

For the remaining of 34 brands, or 73.9% of the total, the tests showed residues of methyl bromide, which is used in fumigation, at levels between 0.9-67 ml/kg.

Saree Ong-somwang, secretary-general of the Foundation for Consumers, said there was only one brand – CoCo Pimpa white rice – had methyl bromide residue above the 50ml international standard under the Codex Alimentarius Commission (Codex). The test showed of 67.4ml/kg.

All samples were clean of organophosphate, carbamate insecticides and fungicides, she said.

Vitoon Lianchamroon of Biothai, said although majority of tested samples passed the Codex standard, several countries apply stricter standards for methyl bromide – India sets a safe standard at lower than 25ml/kg and China sets it as low as 5ml/kg.

Pic: AP.

In another story, the Bangkok Post has another article with the headline “Govt defiant over ‘tainted’ rice”

The government remains defiant over a consumer group’s lab test which found that almost three-quarters of packed rice samples in the market contained methyl bromide _ an odourless, colourless gas used as a fumigant to control rice bugs.

BP: So we have gone from majority of rice safe to rice being ‘tainted’ in a few hours? Get ready to cue hysteria and panic everywhere though…

The Nation:

A consumer watchdog is calling on the government to inspect packaged rice after random tests found several samples to be tainted with high levels of methyl bromide, which is used to kill rice-eating bugs.

Meanwhile, Niphon Popattanachai, director-general of the Medical Sciences Department, said he had instructed officials to inspect the brands found to have been contaminated and check if these products have been registered with the FDA.

“People should not panic over the report as the contamination is still within safe limits,” he said.

Previously, the department teamed up with the FDA to conduct tests on 54 samples of packaged rice and found very small traces of methyl bromide and no sign of any other related pesticides.

A representative of the packaged rice brand that was found to have high levels of methyl bromide said his firm would recall all tainted products from the market, but wanted the Foundation for Consumers to provide them with more details such as lot numbers. He said he would conduct further investigation.

The Nation on the recent government test:

The ministry’s food standard expert Kanokporn Atisuk said though a small amount of methyl bromide and phosphine used in the production process was detected in the samples, the level is safe and well under the WHO standard of no more than 50 milligrams per kilogram. He said these can be partially removed through rinsing, steaming and mere evaporation.

The reason for the recent tests was a result of claims on social media that a certain company’s rice was contaminated with toxic chemicals. The Bangkok Post:

The move comes after Sutthiphong Thammawuthi, managing director of TV Burapha Co. which produces the popular Khon Khon Khon (People-Searching People) programme, posted a Facebook comment suggesting packed rice produced by certain companies had been contaminated with toxic chemicals.

Sumeth Laomoraporn, chief executive of CP Intertrade Co, a rice business of the Charoen Pokphand (CP) Group, said the company has filed a lawsuit against Mr Sutthiphong for defamation and violation of the Computer Crime Act.

Mr Sutthiphong posted a comment on his Facebook page alleging that packed rice produced by the company under the Tra Chatr or Royal Umbrella brand, which is produced by CP, had been contaminated.

BP: The host later apologized and he stated:

Meanwhile, the TV host admitted his mistake in posting the message on his Facebook page. He said he had no ill intention and that his action had nothing to do with politics.

“The message was widely shared and I got it from Line application. I just copied and posted it on Facebook.”

He said the message was previously shared by someone else, and he only added it to share on his Facebook, he said.

His intention was only his concerns for the safety of rice consumers and was to create fairness to the private sector alleged so that it could clarify the matter to the public.

BP: He is not likely to win the investigative journalist of the year award…

Post Today reports that Tra Chatr brand was one of the brand tested and it was 1 of 12 brands tested that had no residue of any agricultural chemical substance ( ที่ไม่พบการตกค้างของสารเคมีทางการเกษตรชนิดใดๆ) although that will probably be lost in the news….

Looking online, BP has found (PDF) Australian rice growers also use methyl bromide although there is a plan to phase some use out by 2015. Many alternatives were found not to be economically or technically feasible.

On Codex, Wikipedia states:

Its name is derived from the Codex Alimentarius Austriacus.[1] Its texts are developed and maintained by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, a body that was established in early November 1961 by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), was joined by the World Health Organization (WHO) in June 1962, and held its first session in Rome in October 1963.[2] The Commission’s main goals are to protect the health of consumers and ensure fair practices in the international food trade. The Codex Alimentarius is recognized by the World Trade Organization as an international reference point for the resolution of disputes concerning food safety and consumer protection.[3][4]

BP: The guy from Biothai cites China and India saying they require the reside not exceed 5 ml/kg or 25 ml/kg respectively, but BP should note that the Foreign Agricultural Service of the United States Department of Agriculture provide a searchable database on the permissible maximum residue levels for various goods for various countries. Choosing rice and methyl bromide and all countries gives you the following:

Source: FAS

BP: As you can see India and China are some of the few exceptions with most countries allowing a permissible maximum residue level of 50 ml/kg for methyl bromide including the US, EU. Perhaps China and India use a lower permissible maximum residue level as a form of protectionism – such a thing has been known to happen! – so unless there is compelling evidence to the contrary a permissible maximum residue level of 50 ml/kg of methyl bromide seems reasonable in BP’s views. Now Biothai are entitled to their opinion on what constitutes tainted rice, but talk of several samples of tainted rice is just scaremongering, given the rice could be safely exported to almost all countries of the world.

Now, there is one company whose rice has a residue level exceeding the 50 ml/kg for methyl bromide CODEX standard. The rice is branded as Ko-Ko (and not CoCo).* Clearly, more tests of this brand of rice are needed and it should be pulled from stores (which the company has said they would according to The Nation), but given we have now had independent testing of the other rice brands and they were found to have passed** should they be tainted by association as well just to attack the government’s rice pledging scheme?***

*Thai name is โค – โค่ ข้าวขาวพิมพา and clearly this is Ko-Ko

**i.e lower than the permissible maximum residue level of 50 ml/kg for methyl bromide.

***Contrast with this story with multiple incidents of dangerous levels of pesticides in vegetables found in markets in department stores