Features — 16 February 2016 — by Johnelle McKenzie
How safe is the rice on your plate?

BELIZE CITY, Mon. Feb. 15, 2016–Rice is one of Belize’s main staple foods, but Jitendra Chawla, aka Jack Charles, is saying that the rice that we’ve been incorporating in our daily meals might be contaminated with a carcinogenic substance. That substance to which he’s referring is aflatoxin, which has been described as a “poisonous and cancer-causing chemical”. It takes the form of a mold and occurs when staple foods are “improperly stored”.

The Director of the Belize Bureau of Standards in a press release has responded to Chawla’s claim. The release pointed out that “Charles is not recognized as a competent authority to conduct testing of any basic food item in Belize.”

While Chawla is not an authority, the institution to which he sent the rice samples for testing — Eurofins Analytical Laboratories, is one that the Belize Agriculture Health Authority (BAHA) is very familiar with, since they conduct their testing there as well, Chawla said.

The Bureau’s press release further stated that “The test results provided on February 1, by Charles shows that none of the rice samples analyzed contain detectable levels of aflatoxins and as a result does not pose any threat to human health.” The release ends with a reiteration by the Bureau of its commitment to the public to ensure that food on the market is safe for consumption.

Chawla had three different samples of rice tested at Eurofins Analytical Laboratories in New Orleans for aflatoxin. They were: Best Value Rice (white), Circle R Premium (white) and Tropic Rice Grade “C” (white), and they were tested for Aflatoxin B1, Aflatoxin B2, Aflatoxin G1, Aflatoxin G2.

The results of the tests that Chawla sent showed the presence of aflatoxin in all three rice samples for all tests, but less than two micrograms per kilogram.

Chawla told Amandala that the Statutory Instrument, as affirmed in the gazette publication from the Bureau of Standards, dated October 2015 on the Standards (Declaration of Compulsory Standard) Order 2015, states that the rice sold in Belize should be free of contamination at Section 6 1.6: “Rice shall be free of microbiological contaminants and chemicals (aflatoxin which is created by improper storage causing growth of Aspergillus flavus).” Chawla said he is only going by what is stated in the law and that it should say differently if there is a certain amount of aflatoxin that is considered an acceptable level that would not jeopardize the public’s health. He went on to say that the authorities’ job is to ensure that the product is safe for Belizeans’ consumption and not to put their health at risk.

In a press release dated February 12, the Belize Chamber of Commerce, in making reference to Chawla’s rice test, said, “the tests allegedly carried out on Belizean rice samples found aflatoxins to be well within those limits and therefore safe for consumption. BAHA’s requirement that the rice be ‘free of microbiological contaminants and chemicals’ is interpreted as requiring levels within allowable limits, such as those stipulated by the FDA.”

Chawla went on to comment that whether or not less than 2 micrograms of aflatoxin per kilogram of rice is harmful to humans is debatable; however, over time the amount of aflatoxin being absorbed by Belizeans adds up, especially since Belizeans consume a lot of rice. Therefore with time the amount of aflatoxin ingested can reach a level that is considered harmful and that is cause for alarm, he reasoned.

The Chamber’s release added “These accusations are clearly without merit, and obviously meant to cause consumer panic without any care for potential damage to the Belizean economy, the reputation of the rice industry or BAHA’s institutional reputation. Issuing such an inflammatory report on the rice industry is irresponsible and clearly intended to force an opening for rice importation.”

Chawla had a well-publicized battle with the government when he was trying to import rice from Guyana in December 2015 to sell to the public at $.69 cents per pound, which was approximately $.50 cents less than the cost of local rice, and it was a battle he lost.

Chawla said he is not trying to get back at the government for not allowing him to bring in his rice; instead he is challenging them to do the right thing and he would like to see the gouging stop.

Amandala spoke with Jose Alpuche, Chief Executive Officer of the Ministry of Agriculture, who prefers not to comment on Chawla’s accusation of the rice, and prefers for their lawyers to deal with it.

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