Amid widespread concerns about health hazards from pesticide-soaked vegetables and fruits, health-conscious consumers are willing to pay more for products they believe to be safe "from farm to table" as certified by the government's food standard agency. It turns out they are being cheated.
The National Bureau of Agricultural Commodity and Food Standards (ACFS) is the agency in question. It is responsible for granting the "Q-mark" logo to guarantee the quality and safety of the products.
It is an important task. When other government agencies have failed to curb excessive use of toxic farm chemicals that cause health hazards, the Q logo informs consumers of a higher standard of food and encourages "green" businesses to grow. In the wake of frequent boycotts of contaminated vegetables by trade partners, food safety standards also help restore trust and bring the country's goal of becoming the "Kitchen of the World" a bit closer.
Latest laboratory tests of vegetables and fruits in Bangkok and four other provinces, however, have shown that this food safety accrediting agency has completely failed in its missions. According to the inspections by Thailand Pesticide Alert Network (Thai-Pan) and the Foundation for Consumers, more than 55.9% of all vegetables and fruits samples contain toxic farm residues, while 46.6% of them exceed the maximum residue limit (MRL).
Surprisingly, the supposedly "safe" and much more expensive products with Q-mark certificates actually contain the highest toxic residues at 87.5% while 62.5% exceed the maximum residue limit.
More than half (53.3%) of the samples from modern-trade retails also exceed the residue limit. Contrary to public perception, fruits and vegetables from traditional wet markets are the safest with only 40% below the required safety standard. A thorough rinsing to wash away the toxic residues is not always the answer. Systemic chemicals such as carbendazim can easily seep into the vegetables and fruits' tissues. It has been revealed that half of the samples — and all of the oranges, apples and strawberries tested — contained a high level of this dangerous fungicide.
The National Bureau of Agricultural Commodity and Food Standards (ACFS) must answer many questions. By law, producers and distributors of hazardous foods must be fined and/or sent to jail. Their Q-mark logo must be revoked. Inefficient officials must be punished. What action will it take when its Q-mark logo has turned into a public cheat? What will it do about its own negligence that puts the public's health at risk? The agency responded by saying that the Q-mark logos on those questionable products might be fake while pointing out that the inspection methods are different.
This is unacceptable. The whole accreditation system must be revamped. Still, the best way to prevent health dangers from hazardous farm chemicals is to limit their use, or ban them altogether. It works. After the banning of chemical insecticides EPN and Dicrotophos, their residues in fruits and vegetables are now non-existent. Food contamination from the toxic carbofuran and methomyl have also been markedly reduced after the authorities refused to extend licenses for their uses.
Over 70% of chemical pesticides used in Thailand are not allowed in the West and categorised by the World Health Organisation as extremely hazardous. In the past two decades, pesticide-related illnesses also increased 17-fold while 81% of all reservoir water is contaminated with DDT and other toxic substances.
When banning chemicals remains difficult due to collusion from officials and agribusinesses, consumers pin their hopes on food standard agencies. Their inefficiency must not be tolerated.