News Features  


Drinks that kill

By Carol Aloysius
First it was a nine-year-old girl from Polonnaruwa who died. Then in a bizarre coincidence several miles away in the North, three little boys of almost identical age, 4,7 and 9 were rushed from a hospital at Vavuniya to the Anuradhapaura Teaching Hospital where fortunately, and thanks to the emergency first aid they were given, their young lives were saved.
What had caused their sudden illness (and one death) is still under investigation at the Government Analyst Department. But theories abound. Some allege it was an outright case of poison deliberately introduced into the drinks, while the more rational minded dismiss this allegation, asking why anyone especially a businessman intent only on making profits however illegally, would want to kill the goose that lays the golden egg.
Having interviewed several persons on the subject,

The Nation found that the most logical reason given by the majority was bacterial contamination. Why?
Dr Pradeep Kariyawasam, Chief Medical Officer, Colombo Municipal Council explains:
“The problem with soft drinks is when they are kept exposed to the sun and heat. Many boutiques and small shops do this all the time, by using pavements as ‘display’ cases! When exposed to heat for a long time, neurotoxins begin to form. Benzene is one that comes to my mind at this moment. When absorbed inside the body, it becomes toxic and can cause adverse health effects. Ideally a soft drink should be refrigerated both during transportation and during storage. You see, fruit drinks often contain artificial sweeteners which make them vulnerable to adverse reactions”.
Examples? “Aspartame , which after a long time forms formaldehyde when it is exposed to sunlight and heat. If you use these drinks for a long period, it can cause adverse reactions. Then again, sodium benzoate when it interacts with the vitamin C in the drinks, forms benyeme, which is a carcinogen that can lead to cancer from long-term use.

But that can’t happen overnight as in these recent cases”.
How much of drink should one consume to have these effects?
“A lot.”
“So does that rule out sudden and quick death?” “Generally yes – unless…”
“Unless what?”
“Unless some poison has been introduced deliberately which is most unlikely in this case. Or if the bottle had not been washed well, or was a bottle that had previous contained some toxic substance which had again not been washed thoroughly.”
So what has the Consumer Affairs Division of the Colombo Municipal Council and other local municipal councils done about this?
“We have constantly reminded vendors to keep their soft drinks inside the shops at proper room temperature. But they do this for a short while and resume their bad habit.”
Isn’t there a Food Act that makes this offence punishable by law?
“Yes. But we need to do more and give teeth to this Act. Now after these two separate incidents, we will be putting more pressure on shopkeepers to clean up their act, or pay heavy penalties”.
Dr Hector Weerasinghe, Director, National Hospital of Sri Lanka, when contacted by The Nation, said that no cases of food poisoning from drinking fruit juice sold in containers had been reported so far at the National Hospital. He also said that as details regarding how fruit drinks can spoil were not his subject, he advised us to seek help elsewhere. “Ask an Etymologist or someone more qualified to answer this question,” he said.
When The Nation tried several times to contact the Epidemiology Department of the Health Ministry by phone, the only answer we received from a clerk or telephone operator was that all the epidemiologists including the Chief Dr Paba Palihawaradena, and the Assistant Chief Dr Sudath Peiris , were away attending seminars for the whole week, and could not be contacted.
Medical Research Institute (MRI) Director Dr Anil Samaranayake, however, was much more helpful when we contacted him on the phone.

Dr Lilani Karunanayake, Consultant Micro-biologist, MRI, Head of Food and Water Lab explains how soft drinks become toxic:
1. Soft drinks (fruit-flavoured drinks) and cola drinks are acid carbonated beverages. Contamination can occur during production of both the above. Proper filtration, treatment and ensuring quality control of the process can minimize contamination of microorganisms.
2. Since acid drinks are inhibitory to many microorganisms, with an ideal filtering and treatment process contamination can be minimised. Yeasts and bacillus spp. are the main microorganism that can exist and likely to cause spoilage of soft drinks. Moulds can grow in uncarbonated or poorly carbonated beverage bottles with the presence of air.
3. Yeasts mainly cause spoilage of food, and moulds produce toxins. Bacillus spp. can cause acute gastroenteritis. All can contribute to food spoilage. There are many deadly toxins. The difference of botulinum toxin is that only a very small amount is sufficient to cause death.
4. Temperature and pH are important in toxin production. Very low pH of a medium will prevent production of botulinum toxins. Medium and low acid canned food supports botulinum toxin production. (In soft drinks this toxin cannot exist due to high acidity (if properly manufactured!!))
5. They can cause contamination of the product by microorganism. Microorganisms play a part in spoilage of the product, and food poisoning and or death due to high microbial load, toxins or metabolites. Contamination can occur at various stages including what ingredients you use (raw material) water, processing plant, bottling plant, handling, transport storage etc.
6. Expiry date or shelf life is the safe period or the length of time that a food product can be stored and consumed without deterioration. This will depend on the initial microbial load of the product. Microbiological Food Standards are developed by considering all those parameters (in the email). So different foods will have different shelf lives.
7. Unopened, about 6 months. Shelf life vary between food items
8. When not stored in a cool dry place

MRI does microbiological analysis of food to assess the safety and hygienic quality of food to provide assurance of food safety to safeguard public health.
We detect microorganisms. We do not do chemical analysis.”
A nutritionist, who wished to remain anonymous, however made this observation. “While fresh fruit especially those with high fibre were beneficial both to adults and children as against carbonated drinks, it is essential that such drinks are consumed as soon as possible or refrigerated at the correct temperature. This is because fruits contain organisms that can spoil if kept out for too long.

So how long can fruits be kept before they spoil?
“Generally till their expiry date which is marked on the container. But with fruit and vegetables, this can vary according to the environment in which they are stored and of course the temperature.”
Our final contact was Rumy Marzook, Chairman, Consumer Affairs Authority, who took time off a busy schedule to tell us what steps were currently in operation to safeguard the consumer from outdated, contaminated food items. He also reiterated the importance of the consumer’s own role in taking responsibility for what he/she purchases from the open market.
“Our investigating teams have been checking on food items that have expired or are not fit for consumption on a daily basis for the past year. Last year, we were able to detect 560 cases of expired food items. This year up to February 25, we have detected 75 island-wide. We have instructed our investigative teams to produce all errant traders in court.
Special teams have been deployed for this purpose and there will be more rigorous raids and vigilance island-wide on the instructions of Trade Minister Jonston Fernando who has taken a personal interest in this”.
What role do you see the public themselves playing in protecting themselves from consuming such items,” we asked him.

“They play a very vital role, because it is their health that is affected. If any item they have purchased, especially food items, have been found to have exceeded the expiry date, they must immediately bring such items to our notice. The public must take it on themselves to make a habit of checking the expiry dates. Parents must take on the responsibility of advising their children to do the same before they buy any product especially if it is a food item, so that they are not exposed to unnecessary health risks”, he emphasised.
As he correctly points out, “Any consumer item found in boutiques, marketplaces and supermarkets that contradicts the Consumer Act is a violation of the Act. It is thus a punishable offence. Traders who plead ignorance of the law will not be excused. They have to face the consequences.”
What happens if there are serious consequences following consumption of such items, as in Polonnaruwa? we asked.

“If a death or some serious health impact occurs as a result of consuming such items, samples are sent to the Government Analyst Department. But the final decision as to whether a food item sold in the market can adversely impact on the health of the consumer, rests with the Health Ministry. Our actions will be made on the verdict given by the health officials after they have examined the samples”.

Meanwhile news reports immediately following the recent incident at Polonnaruwa said that several hundreds (around 3,000) of bottles of soft drinks had been seized on the first day of a sudden operation launched in Polonnaruwa. Following this raid, action had been initiated to indict the shop owners at the Polonnaruwa Magistrates Court. Newspaper reports also quoted Public Health Inspectors who joined this operation saying that they had detected a stock of outdated yoghurt from a school canteen, in the same district (Polonnaruwa.). According to Consumer Affairs sources, such operations will continue indefinitely, until traders finally get the message and get rid of their stocks of outdated items. “It will be an on going operation. So traders had better beware,” sources warned.

CMC sources also told The Nation that inspections of food outlets throughout the city were being beefed up, with special attention to those near schools.