Burma’s first Consumer Protection Association was founded only two years ago to root out unhealthy foods and medicines in the local market. The Rangoon-based volunteer group, whose members include doctors, traditional practitioners, chemists and authors, has claimed over the past year that certain imported fish sauces, instant coffee mixes and cooking oils contain harmful substances. CPA founder Ba Oak Khine, who is writing a book about traditional herbal medicines, recently explained some of the challenges in getting the group off the ground, including opposition from the Ministry of Health.
Question: Why does Burma need a consumer protection association?
Answer: Burma is a country that’s lacking food safety. We’re neighboring China, which produces a lot of fake products, so we need this kind of association to protect ourselves.
Q: How’s your relationship with the Ministry of Health’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA)?
A: Our relationship is almost nonexistent. In previous months, Soe Tun of the 88 Generation Students has tried to collaborate with other small groups working on consumer protection. We were invited, as were the Ministry of Commerce and the FDA, but they didn’t join. When we found that some local fish pastes were made with fertilizer, we sent three samples to the FDA, but so far the FDA has not taken action. After that we tried to open our own laboratory.
We’re trying to register our association with the Ministry of Home Affairs, but the Ministry of Health objects. They said they would not be opposed if we conducted workshops and examined school food stalls, but that we should inform them before announcing anything to media. We agreed. …We want to work with them when we can, but if not we will go ahead ourselves.
Q: What methods do you use to detect fake products?
A: We work with the public. People on the ground give us information and we study to confirm. Most of the time, their information is correct. For example, our sources showed us that one kind of fish sauce from Thailand was fake. The fake brand lacks a product seal and changes color within 15 days, unlike the authentic brands. It’s really obvious.
Q: Whether you test products in your own laboratories or send samples to other laboratories, how are you qualified to analyze the results?
A: There are chemists in our group, and consultants from Yangon [Rangoon] University’s chemistry department, as well as medical doctors. We just ask them to help us.
Q: Can you tell me more about the fish sauce from Thailand? How did it get to the local market, and what are the side effects?
A: Bottles are coming here through the Myawaddy trade route from Thailand, and they end up in the Mingalar wholesale market in Rangoon. A retail shop told us about the fake bottles, but after we made a public announcement the bottles disappeared. Traders took them back to Myawaddy. We can distinguish between the fake and real, although I still can’t answer about the health effects because we haven’t sent samples to a foreign lab yet. But Thailand-based medical research has suggested that about half the fish sauces made in Thailand are unhealthy, and four brands are distributed here. Even some real brands are not suitable. They have too much nitric acid, which can lead to heat stroke or impact the nerves.
Q: How do businesses respond when you allege that local products contain harmful ingredients?
A: Some local businesses say they’ll sue, but we threaten to counter sue and it always stops in the conversation stage. We believe our activities are correct.
Q: What kind of consumer protections does Burma have?
A: Parliament is drawing up the Consumer Protection Law. We already have the National Food Law, but it’s weakly enforced. They should amend the food safety law and take action. They must do it for the people.