SOME unscrupulous meat retailers in Zimbabwe are using embalming chemicals as meat preservatives, The Sunday Mail Society has established.
The scam involves the use of formalin, a chemical mixture of preservatives used on corpses, which is sprinkled on meat products to make them look fresh and to extend their shelf life.
Formalin is used for embalming in mortuaries to temporarily prevent the decomposition of a human body after death.
But investigations carried out by The Sunday Mail Society in Harare last week, revealed that sodium metabisulfite, a white chemical, is mixed with water and sprayed on the meat to maintain its reddish hue and create the impression that it is fresh.
Used in large quantities, the chemicals can keep flies away and preserve the meat for as long as two months.
Other crooked vendors are injecting steroids that build muscle into both living animals and packed meat in order to increase their weight.
This publication also established that sick cattle are being slaughtered, with some found to contain antibiotics in their blood, which is a health hazard.
Health experts are concerned about such practices, saying the chemicals pose health risks to consumers, including cancer and respiratory problems.
It appears that the push factor for this malpractice are erratic power supplies as fridges and coldrooms are no longer able to preserve the meat for lengthy periods.
Some of the butchery workers interviewed by this publication confirmed using the chemicals to preserve meat.
For Cosmas Mtandwa, his meat shop is scrambling for alternative sources of energy during the 18-hour power cuts.
“My products, meat and mackerel, were going bad every day because of the power cuts. Someone advised me to try embalming fluids (formalin) to keep the meat fresh,” he said.
He also sprinkles soda water on the meat to maintain its reddish colour.
“Soda water is widely used at abattoirs to keep the meat red, I don’t see anything wrong with that,” he said.
Five more butchers admitted using “some chemicals” to preserve meat and keep flies away. They all maintained that none of their customers has ever complained about any health complications.
But the victims who spoke with this publication said the meat was affecting their health.
“Every time I buy meat from these butchers, I experience stomach pains and heartburn,” said a woman only identified as Winnie, a Mbare resident.
“The meat looks very fresh and enticing but when cooked, it’s something else,” she said. This writer observed a vendor, later identified as Uncle Mucho or Fishmonger, as he constantly immersed the fish he was selling in a basin filled with some foaming liquid.
Purporting to be interested in his fish, our news crew drew closer. We learnt that the solution in the basin was actually a concentrate of formalin and soda water.
So who is selling the chemicals? ls it even legal to use them on meat products?
A visit to the pharmacies in downtown Harare revealed that some of the chemicals are openly sold over the counter with no questions asked.
With regards to formalin, our news crew contacted a local mortuary employee who secured a bottle at US$10. There were no restrictions or questions asked on what we wanted to use the chemical for. Several butchers said they access the chemical from mortuaries through their agents and mortuary attendants at a minimum of US$5, depending on the quantities needed
Effects of formalin and steroids
Several butchers and meat vendors are not aware of the potential dangers of formalin, inorganic salts and steroids on humans.
Dr George Chirimbo, a gastroenterologist, said the consumption of such chemicals will hurt consumers in the long run. “Formalin can’t be used in large quantities because it is easily detectable and it hardens the meat. I think these butchers and vendors are using small amounts. Consumption will not have an immediate effect on the person. However, if consumption is prolonged, it gets really dangerous,” Dr Chirimbo said.
He said in the short run, one can experience burning sensations in the eyes, nose and throat, accompanied by unexplainable coughing, nausea and skin irritation. The doctor also said that effects can vary since some people are more sensitive to exposure than others. Speaking on the use of steroids, Dr Chirimbo said: “They weaken the immune system if consumed in meat. They can also cause obesity.”
Other medical experts said the chemicals could cause cancer and damage the kidneys, although this has not been proven scientifically.
ls your food safe?
While some butchers are preserving meat with dangerous chemicals, food vendors at Mbare Musika are also using baking soda and panadol pills to speed up the cooking process for trotters, beef bones and beans.
Not to be outdone, farmers and the middlemen for their produce are also lacing perishable vegetables with pesticides to keep weevils and rats away. Other chemicals are applied to preserve the vegetables and prevent “unpleasant browning”.
A food scientist student at a local university, Ronald Tirivavi, said when consumed, such food can cause candida, pneumonia, diarrhoea as well as throat and respiratory distress.
“They also weaken the immunity, thereby exposing the body to opportunistic infections,” said Tirivavi.
Pharmacist Dr Yasin Sabako said panadol contains an element called acetaminophen, which softens food that ordinarily takes long to cook.
“But when it is boiled at those high temperatures, the chemical changes the normal functioning of body cells, and this could lead to cancer.”
He said that the body’s defensive cells, called normal flora, are killed through consumption of such food, thus weakening the body’s immune system. “It could also affect the liver, kidneys and the heart, just like any other antibiotics,” said Dr Sabako. Authorities have pledged to launch thorough investigations to get to the bottom of the matter. The Consumer Council of Zimbabwe’s executive director, Ms Rosemary Siyachitema, encouraged consumers to make police reports.
The Secretary for Health and Child Care, Dr Agnes Mahomva, expressed shock at the practice. She pledged that her ministry would investigate the matter.
Zimbabwe Republic Police spokesperson Assistant Commissioner Paul Nyathi echoed the same sentiments, saying their teams were on the ground investigating the malpractice.
“According to the Health Act, it is forbidden to use such substances on meat. It is dangerous for consumers to take meat laced with such chemicals,” said Asst Comm Nyathi.
Use of inorganic salts and preservative chemicals is regulated in most countries.