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Toxic coconut oil scare trigger public wave of fear over aflatoxins in foodstuffs

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People now wary of buying certain products

By Suresh Perera

In the backdrop of a top official of Sri Lanka’s key standards body coming under heavy flak over her controversial claim that several other consumer commodities also contain toxic substances, public apprehension has shifted to many other products in the market following a wave of fear triggered over cancer-causing free radicals in foodstuffs, industry players said.

The Trade Ministry has already initiated a disciplinary inquiry into the assertion by Dr. Siddhika Senaratne, the Director-General of the Sri Lanka Standards Institution (SLSI), that aflatoxins are also found in certain other food items sold to the public.

Aflatoxins are a family of toxins produced by certain fungi found on agricultural crops.

As the SLSI scientist’s remarks during a television talk show ignited an uproar following the seizure of imported stocks of contaminated coconut oil, industry officials said that customers are now wary of purchasing certain food products as the social media, rightly or wrongly, painted a frightening picture, they said.

A committee will be appointed to examine Dr. Senaratne’s statement to ascertain the validity or otherwise of her claim of the presence of aflatoxins in some food products in the marketplace, authoritative sources said.

Though the Director-General didn’t identify any of the “toxic products” she claimed were being sold to consumers, her statement unleashed a cycle of fear and uncertainty as consumers, influenced largely by social media reports and hearsay, viewed many brands with suspicion, the sources noted.

However, there has been no credible scientific evidence so far to prove that products identified on social media contain carcinogenic properties, they said.

Dr. Senaratne’s contention was that identifying products with toxic substances could lead to the collapse of some local industries. The Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) has been informed to take up the issue with the relevant manufacturers for remedial action, she said.

It is no secret that many mills use copra with fungus to extract coconut oil. The perishable copra is dried outdoors but there is no proper cleaning of the fungi, which are common under tropical and sub-tropical conditions, before the oil is extracted, industry officials said.

Has it been established whether the shiny wax coating used on apples as an oxygen barrier to preserve freshness, particularly in consignments imported from China, belong to the safe food grade material?, they asked.

In the case of apples imported to Sri Lanka from the USA, the whole process of orchard to point of landing take many weeks. It is true that fruits are stored in cold rooms to preserve quality and slow the aging process by regulating oxygen and carbon dioxide levels. However, the question arises whether there are accredited processes to monitor the agro chemical and other toxic levels in imported apples and other varieties of fruits before permitting the stocks to be released to the local market, they noted.

Hoppers are a staple of Sri Lankan cuisine, but it’s common knowledge that many wayside eateries introduce plaster of paris (a quick-setting gypsum plaster consisting of a fine white powder known as calcium sulfate hemihydrate) to the batter to keep them fresh and crispy, the officials asserted.

“This is because customers insist on freshly baked hoppers and as a result, those that have gone flat cannot be sold”, they said.

Cleanliness of eateries is being monitored to some extent, but are there any quality checks for toxicity on the food served to customers?, they queried.

After the contaminated coconut oil scandal surfaced, people are reluctant to even buy traditional oil-based sweetmeats from the marketplace, they further said.

Unlike earlier years, there is a slump in sweetmeat sales, a supermarket official said. “Customers are wary about toxic coconut oil in the market”.

 

 



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CAA reverses decision to file legal action against Litro Gas

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For introducing controversial hybrid LPG cylinder

by Suresh Perera

The Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) has backtracked on moves to file legal action against Litro Gas Lanka for launching 18-litre premium hybrid domestic LPG cylinders in contravention of consumer laws.

The Chairman was not in favor of moving court on the matter due to political pressure, a senior CAA official said.

The move to desist from legally challenging Litro’s launch of the new hybrid cylinder to the market without the regulator’s approval comes in the backdrop of State Minister Lasantha Alagiyawanna’s intervention to allow the controversial product to be sold to consumers at its introductory price of Rs. 1,395.

“What’s the purpose of a regulatory body if politicians can interfere with CAA’s legally mandated functions to protect the interests of consumers?”, the official asked.

The selective application of the law will boil down to seeking approval from politicians on whether legal action should be instituted when even a grocery store is raided for violating regulations, he said.

“The law is the same, and if are to take punitive action by favor, then the CAA will be a dead duck bowing down to political dictates”, he opined.

Litro Gas has come under fire for introducing new hybrid domestic cylinders for Rs. 1,395 in spite of the weight being reduced by three kilograms in comparison to the regular 12.5 kilogram cylinders priced at Rs. 1,493.

“We have already received hundreds of complaints about a shortage of 12.5kg cylinders in the market as Litro is trying to push its new hybrid cylinders”, the official said.

“This is unethical”.

A resident of Kirillawala in the Gampaha district complained that only hybrid LPG cylinders were available over the past few days.

“I was told by the Litro dealer in the area that stocks of 12.5kg regular cylinders will not be received for some time”, he said.

However, Litro Gas Chairman/CEO, Anil Koswatte assured that there was no dearth of LPG in the marketplace.

When told that technically there may be no shortage of cooking gas, but on whether regular 12.5kg regular cylinders were also available apart from the new 18-litre premium hybrid product, he said that there may be delays in deliveries due to the prevailing situation, but both domestic cylinders are freely available.

Consumers can also order online or by calling 1311 for delivery, he said.

The LPG production process is continuing uninterrupted despite many challenges posed by the pandemic. Workers adhere to health safety regulations and are regularly screened and provided accommodation to prevent contact with outsiders who may be infected, he continued.

With ballooning global LPG prices, Litro Gas Lanka incurs Rs. 300 to 400 million in losses per day as the government has turned down an appeal for a Rs. 700 price increase on domestic cylinders.

The new hybrid 18-litre domestic cylinder was introduced to the market to cut losses as LPG is now sold below procurement cost.

Asked about the claim in a YouTube video shared on social media that he draws a remuneration of Rs. 3 million per month at a time Litro is facing a financial crunch, Koswatte declined to comment on what he termed as “gossip to sling mud at him”.

The presenter of the YouTube program, Chapa Bandara, claimed that Koswatte draws a monthly salary of Rs. 2 million from Litro Gas Lanka Limited and Rs. 1 million from Litro Gas Terminal Lanka Ltd.

“I am not paid with government funds”, he noted, while pointing out that both are private companies.

“My salary is a matter for the shareholders to decide on”, he stressed, while adding that his salary should not be of concern to anybody as it’s purely a private matter.

The Chairman said that if he responds to tittle-tattle, it will create the impression that he also thrives on gossip.

Presenter Bandara also asserted that a woman who served as the General Manager at the time Koswatte was Chairman of Laksala has been appointed Director (Human Resources) of Litro Gas.

 

 

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Allied Security Services to reward officer who foiled Rs. 10.7mn robbery

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Timely action by a security officer on duty at a private bank in the Anuradhapura New Town thwarted the robbery of Rs. 10.7 million by a two-member gang on Thursday morning.

The officer risked his life to prevent the gangsters from escaping with the cash during the heist, an official said.

An officer of a different security agency had alighted from the vehicle and walked towards the ATM with a representative of the bank to reload cash into the machine when two persons lurking in the vicinity had thrown chilli powder and grappled with them in an attempt to grab the bag containing the cash, he said.

They had, however, fought back, and in the melee, the bag had slipped to the ground. The security officer, who was near the entrance to the bank, had promptly run across, picked up the bag and taken it into the premises, he noted.

Sensing they had lost the chance of robbing the money, the gangsters had escaped on a motorcycle before the police arrived, the official said.

A security officer of the company entrusted with reloading cash to the bank’s ATMs was injured when his gun went off by accident during the confusion, he said. “He was admitted to the Anuradhapura General Hospital”.

The brave security officer, whose resourcefulness prevented the money from being snatched, was identified as S. R. K. Somarathne of Allied Security Services (Pvt) Limited. He is a resident of Hidogama in Anuradhapura.

“We will be rewarding this valiant officer who foiled the robbery in spite of the grave risk to his life”, a senior official of Allied Security Services, said. (SP)

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Police round up unmasked persons in public spaces in Colombo

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With the alarming spike in Covid-19 infections across the country, Police on Friday launched an operation in Colombo to round up unmasked persons in public spaces.

Police said that 85 people taken into custody were initially taken to the Bo-tree junction in Pettah, where DIG (Colombo Division) Jagath Chandrakumara, gave them a brief lecture on the risk of not adhering to health safety guidelines.

They are not only placing their lives on the line by ignoring corona preventive guidelines such as wearing a mask and maintaining physical distance, but also jeopardizing others by spreading the virus, he said.

Police said that 85 persons taken into custody were later transported in buses to the Pettah police station, where they were granted police bail. They will have to appear in court when notified.

The operation was conducted under the supervision of DIG Jagath Chandrakumara, SSP (Colombo Central) Nishantha Chandrasekara, SSP (Colombo Central 1) Samarakoon Banda, Pettah Acting OIC Chief Inspector Abeyratne and Dam Street OIC Chief Inspector A. P. Paduruarachchi on the direction of senior DIG (Western Province) Deshabandu Tennakoon.

 

 

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