If you’re a regular at a Yangon teashop, you might like to ask the owner where he buys his leaves. While foreign correspondents concern themselves with the trial of Aung San Suu Kyi, talk in local media, marketplaces and street stalls has been preoccupied with reports about harmful chemicals and parasites in tea, chili, fish paste and cooking oil. As if millions of people in Myanmar didn’t have enough trouble thinking where their next meal might come from, those who can afford to eat are increasingly worried by news of what’s in the stuff that they’re buying.
A recent edition of Weekly Eleven, for example, carried a front-page story about toxins and fungi in chili powder supplies. It pointed out that whereas in the past most people dried and pounded their own chili, now the trend is towards the prepackaged variety, so the quantity of commercially made powder has increased a lot.
There are at least two big problems with this. First, much of the chili, along with other foods, includes coloring that may be dangerous to people’s health. Companies have been setting up and expanding manufacturing without quality or safety controls. Second, larger amounts of food are getting stored for longer periods, and some attract fungi, especially in the rainy season, which merchants stir into the product prior to sale rather than discard it.
Although an alert consumer may be able to make out signs of fungi, food coloring is harder to detect, harder to know if it may be dangerous or not, and, according to some experts in Myanmar, more likely to pose a threat. Professor Khin Maung Win, a liver specialist, told Weekly Eleven that some food colorings could cause liver or bladder cancer, or kidney disease. Another doctor told the journal that a certain type of poisonous fungi found in tealeaves contains aflatoxins, which could also result in liver cancer.
Government agencies’ reassurances that they’re checking brand by brand and removing those found to be a health risk; are setting up committees to better monitor and regulate food manufacture, and are planning to put labels on those products that pass inspection are unlikely to ease concerns. Food scares have been a feature of life in Myanmar for years, and as more and more factory-produced items make their way into people’s diets without oversight or openness, questions about what’s really in them are only set to increase. The officially-announced withdrawal of contaminated baby formula from the shelves last year, for example, only came after considerable delay, and with few details to aid consumers in their choice of what to buy and what to throw away.
The root problem is not one of food at all. It’s a problem of trust, or rather, the lack of it. People in Myanmar simply don’t believe what their government tells them about what it’s doing. And why should they? Reports on measures to ban unsafe foods are met with the same incredulity as those on Aung San Suu Kyi’s trial. From political machinations to shopfront exchanges, the only thing that is certain is that nobody can believe what they’ve been told. Both the hearings in Insein Prison and toxic food colorings in one way or another profoundly affect people’s lives, but whereas the former seem far removed from daily affairs, the tealeaves look back at the drinker every time he stares into the cup.