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Australian supermarkets revealed to be selling dangerous and banned imported foods

food safety Source: SBS

It is a story about lead and copper toxicity, arsenic, banned pesticides, DDT and more.

Last year, SBS Radio's Punjabi program began getting emails, photos and social-media posts from listeners complaining of foods bought at South Asian grocery stores around Australia.

The foods, they said, were mouldy or smelled foul.

The complaints triggered a months-long investigation by the program that has uncovered a potentially far deeper issue.

It is a story about lead (led) and copper toxicity, arsenic, banned pesticides, DDT and more.

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When packaged food is rotten or damaged, a buyer probably will simply throw it away.

But that, it turns out, is a small part of the problem.

Experts on food standards for imports into Australia indicate the bigger concern is the contamination consumers cannot see, from chemicals and pesticides to heavy metals.

They say globalisation means, despite Australian food-safety standards, some imported products do not necessarily face the same stringent standards in their country of origin.

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A team from SBS's Punjabi program has found in Australia many of the more than 3,000 Indian food products -- and associated brands -- rejected in the United States in 2015-16.

The US Food and Drug Administration rejected them over pesticides, labelling issues, salmonella, melamine, "filthy, putrid appearance" and "poisonous and deleterious" substances.

In late 2013, a batch of Haldiram tasty nuts was recalled from Australian stores because of aflatoxin (af-luh-TOX-in) contamination -- the US food authority had repeatedly rejected Haldiram snacks.

Using the list of rejected products in the United States as a guide, SBS Radio purchased dozens of products at Indian specialty stores across greater Melbourne.

They sent 18 to the National Measurement Institute, a food-testing lab accredited by the National Association of Testing Authorities.

The idea was to find if the foods had pesticide residues or other chemical contamination.

The tests showed two that failed Australian food-safety standards and one banned food somehow slipping through Australian customs checks on food imports.

The SBS investigation discovered Kohinoor basmati rice contains Buprofezin, (boo-pro-FEE-zin) an insecticide not allowed in Australia.

It also revealed the popular Indian spice brand MDH contains pesticides above the limit specified by Food Standards Australia New Zealand.

And even though the import of the carcinogen seed betel nut is banned in Australia, it can easily be bought at South Asian grocery stores in Melbourne.

Most imported food products tested also contained pesticides, insecticides and a number of metals, including lead, (led) arsenic, copper, chromium and cadmium.

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The United States food authority has repeatedly rejected MDH, the Indian spice brand.

SBS commissioned tests on MDH Tawa Fry Masala, bought at a Melbourne supermarket.

Tests revealed it contains 0.22 milligrams of the fungicide Carbendazim (kar-BEN-dah-zim) per kilogram, more than twice the limit set by Food Standards.

It contains 0.066 milligrams of the insecticide Imidacloropid (IM-uh-dah-KLO-prid) per kilogram, again above the Food Standards limit.

The director of Monash University's Australian Centre for Human Health Risk Assessment, Professor Brian Priestly, confirms the spice fails to meet Australian standards.

"When I checked the current maximum-residue limit (MRL) regulations in Australia, the levels you showed me in that data were slightly above that. So it would not be compliant, though I doubt very much if there will be a health effect associated with those levels because they are only marginally higher than the MRL. But they would not be compliant, put it that way."

SBS also found both MDH Tawa Fry Masala (muh-SAH-luh) and Nestle Cerelac failed to meet the mandatory labelling requirement that requires importers to clearly identify themselves.

National Measurement Institute results of at least three other products have concerned the experts due to their levels of copper and lead.

They include the Indian-manufactured powdered milk drink Complan for growing children, Indus basmati rice from Pakistan and Verka Ghee.

Verka Ghee is a clarified butter widely used by South Asians in daily cooking.

The Kohinoor basmati rice bought in Melbourne contains 0.014 milligrams of the insecticide Buprofezin per kilogram.

Professor Priestly says he believes that brand of rice also fails the test, because there is no prescribed Maximum Residue Limit for Buprofezin in the Australian food standards.

He says, if a limit is not set for a particular pesticide or chemical for a product, it should not be detectable in that product.

The Australian importer of Kohinoor Basmati rice, Aarkay International, has declined comment on the matter.

A laboratory test on Verka Ghee found it contains traces of the probable carcinogenic insecticide DDT, although within levels permitted under Australia’s Food Safety Standards.

However, some experts whom SBS has spoken to suggest even consuming small amounts of DDT could be harmful.

Professor Cohen says chemicals like DDT are persistent and can have a multi-generational effect on humans, meaning pregnant mothers could pass it on to their unborn children.

Verka Coop (KO-op) in India declined to comment about the DDT in its product, only telling SBS its clarified butter meets Australia's and India's standards.

SBS also commissioned testing of a sample of the popular children's powdered drink Complan, produced by Heinz in India.

The results showed 0.12 milligrams of lead per kilogram.

While lead is considered safe in Australia up to 0.2 in cereals, it is not clear what the Australian standard is for lead in children drinks.

Kraft Heinz India says all results for heavy metals have been well below the levels permitted under the Indian government's Food Safety Regulations.

It says the company has not authorised the export of the product to Australia.

Dr Kamaljit Singh Vilkhu, who worked as a food scientist in the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) for 17 years, expresses concern at the whole picture.

More recently, he has tested imported foods at a federal government-accredited laboratory.

"The level of those chemicals is way too high. Even you can feel, you can smell, you can taste. This is my personal experience as well. So, this is quite an alarming situation for most of the products which are coming from India, with the pesticides or insecticide chemical residues."

All foods tested during the investigation are deemed low-risk, or "surveillance," foods in Australia.

Land-use researcher Anthony Amis says Australian authorities test only a small percentage.

"About 5 per cent of the food products that are coming into Australia are actually tested for pesticides by the quarantine service. That leaves a pretty big margin of the stuff that can come in that no-one's really sure about. That's 95 per cent of whatever is coming into the country isn't tested at all."

The Department of Agriculture and Water Resources agrees only 5 per cent of all surveillance food has a chance of being tested at the point of import.

The department says 98 per cent of all imported food complies with Australian standards.