Despite assurances by the Goa government and the state’s Food and Drug Administration that citizens need not be afraid of eating fish in the wake of a formalin scare, residents are not taking any chances and are keeping off the staple.

On July 12, a spot check of fish samples by Food and Drug Administration officials in the state yielded positive results for formalin, a substance used as a preservative for biological specimens in laboratories. It is potentially carcinogenic for humans if consumed over a long period of time. Though Food and Drug Administration officials clarified that the traces were within “permissible limits” and the government supported the claim, fish markets in Goa have since worn a deserted look.

“Fish sale is now down 80% across markets in Goa,” Retail Fish Vendors Association president Felix Gonsalves told Orders for fish at restaurants are also reported to have dropped sharply.

The swift reassurances following the initial test findings have created a perception among residents that the Food and Drug Administration acted under political pressure, and that the Bharatiya Janata Party-led state government is going easy on formalin checks. The views of experts that there is no safe level of formalin in food have added to the distrust. In this backdrop, Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar on Wednesday announced a halt on fish being transported to the state from other locations for 15 days as a precaution.

This follows decisions by Assam and Nagaland to ban fish shipments from the southern states, particularly Andhra Pradesh, for fear of formalin contamination in the past three weeks. Other states such as Kerala and Odisha have also conducted or sought formalin tests on fish from other places.

During the monsoon, when a 61-day fishing ban is in place in the coastal state, Goa gets most of its fish from Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Kerala. The monsoon ban was introduced in the 1980s as a way to prevent overfishing during the time that fish spawned. Goans traditionally tided over this period by eating salted, preserved fish, but recent years have seen a rise in shipments from other states.

Thirty five truckloads of fish from other places enter Goa every day during the ban period, Gonsalves said. But in the wake of the formalin scare, fish shipments were down to 10-12 trucks on Sunday and dropped further to two to three trucks on Monday, The Times of India reported.

Two reports and clarifications

The formalin scare started on July 12, when Food and Drug Administration officials conducted a spot test on fish samples from 17 trucks at the Margao wholesale market – the nodal point for fish obtained from other states. The officials then released the report, which was positive for formalin, to the media. This prompted fish traders to complain to Agriculture Minister Vijai Sardessai. Within hours of this, the agency released a report based on laboratory tests of the samples that said the formalin present in the fish was within “permissible limits”.

When a controversy erupted over the two reports, the agency clarified in a statement that “marine fish naturally contains certain amount of formalin” and that the levels detected in the samples were on par with such naturally occurring levels. It ruled out the possibility of formalin being added to the samples. It also said the officials who had conducted the spot test had erred in releasing the preliminary results, and indicated that it might take action against them.

However, experts have countered the Food and Drug Administration’s assertion of permissible levels of formalin in fish. They say formalin or formaldehyde is not permissible in food and their presence indicates toxicity. “Whatever the spin, formaldehyde is a proven carcinogen,” Panjim doctor Oscar Rebello said on Monday. “So ministers, bureaucrats indeed fish traders must not interfere with due process of science.”

Soon after the spot test, the agriculture minister took to Twitter to say the fish imports were safe:

However, his intervention led to allegations that he was acting in favour of fish traders and against the interests of consumers. On Saturday, he clarified that he was not partisan.

On the back foot

With the controversy refusing to die down, the government finds itself backed into a corner. Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar assured Goans on Saturday that he is personally monitoring the situation.

The state government also blamed sections of the media for creating the scare with Parrikar on Sunday asking Goans to be wary of “fake news”. But with his statements failing to reassure the public, the chief minister on Wednesday announced the ban on fish shipments from other states.

The Retail Fish Vendors Association’s Felix Gonsalves said, “The government should conduct proper procedures, set up a checking mechanism and clear the minds of people.”

On Monday, Food and Drug Administration officials conducted checks at retail fish markets but not at the Margao wholesale market. The following day, Fisheries Minister Vinod Palyekar said checks would be conducted at the border. But for the moment, fish is off the plates of most Goans.

Said popular chef Vasco Alvares: “I am going off fish for sometime and I think everyone should do the same.”