Burmese Tea Snack 'Tainted'

Producers of laphet, a ceremonial dish of pickled green tea leaves, say they are scrambling to recall their products after reports of contamination by textile dyes.
2009-04-08
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Lahpet_stall-305.jpg
A Mandalay market stall sells pickled green tea--known as laphet--from Nam Shan.
Photo: Wikipedia/Wagaung

BANGKOKClaims by the Burmese military government that supplies of a national delicacy are tainted with chemical dyes have sparked calls for independent laboratories to prevent further food safety scares.

The government said March 12 that 43 producers of laphet, a ceremonial dish of pickled green tea leaves which forms a key part of many social and religious events in Burma, were supplying tainted goods.

The announcement came in the same month as the discovery that Burmese children in the United States were suffering from lead and arsenic poisoning after consuming traditional medicines made in Burma.

State-controlled media carried the announcement, citing Ministry of Health tests which reportedly found the yellow-gold textile dye Auramine O in the laphet sold by 43 Burmese producers.

The public was advised not to consume laphet from those producers. But laphet sales within Burma seemed relatively unscathed, residents said.

An employee who answered the phone at the offices of a well-known producer of laphet, Shwe Pyi Tan, said the company had long relied on visual testing to establish whether dangerous dyestuffs were being used to improve the appearance of the wholesale tea-leaves, which must be picked young and buried underground for several months to ferment them.

"We get our laphet from suppliers in the hills [in the north of the country]," the Shwe Pyi Tan employee said. "We never buy the colored stuff. We always ask for the uncolored laphet."

But he said the company lacked laboratory facilities to be sure of what it was getting.

"The only way we can test it is visually," he said.

"The colored leaves color our hands. When we found that the laphet didn't color our hands when we examined it, we assumed it didn't contain coloring."

"We don’t have laboratories to carry out testing, so it is not easy. There is only one laboratory which can test for Auramine O content in laphet," he added.

Lack of testing facilities

Another producer on the "tainted" list, Ayeedaung Laphet, said they had the same problem.

"We have certificates saying that our products have been tested and that they are not tainted with the textile dye ... It is our usual practice to buy laphet without any coloring from the wholesalers in the hills," the owner of the company said in an interview.

"But we failed to test the laphet brought in by one or two suppliers."

"Sometimes they use coloring in the laphet to make it look nice ... I don’t know how one batch of the colored laphet got to us. As you know, we do not have the facilities to test our products," he said.

The news has sparked concerns for some in Burma, although many more people appear unaware that potential problems exist with laphet, which is offered to monks as alms in the Buddhist tradition and to spirits in animistic folk ceremonies.

It is also eaten after the resolution of a dispute or at the end of an armed conflict as a sign of peace.

A Rangoon-based doctor said there was very little public trust in statements by the government, which sparked import bans on laphet by Singapore and Malaysia but not by Thailand, where there is a large Burmese population.

"Laphet has been produced for over 100 years using the same chemicals. Laphet is the life of Burma," he said.

"The Burmese people have been eating laphet for a long time now. Why is the government alleging that there are dyes in laphet? I think that there is some political connection somewhere."

Lack of public trust

He called for samples of laphet to be sent overseas for testing in an independent laboratory.

"It will not cost too much, and only then will you get the real answer," the doctor said.

"One thing to think about is that it seems that only Yuzana [brand] laphet does not contain the dyes. So one has to wonder whether they are somehow connected to the government in one way or another."

"Personally, I do not believe that the laphet is tainted with chemical dyes. I don’t believe in this government’s comment on the matter," he said.

The public should avoid eating laphet in the meantime, however, he added. He called for independent laboratories to be set up in Burma to test foods for safety without political influence.

"They should especially open more private laboratories which are not under the control of the government and should compete with the government-run laboratories," the doctor said.

"That way we will know for sure whether what they say is true or not ... and people need not believe everything the government says."

'Unmarked jars'

A resident of the former capital, Rangoon, said local shops sold only two types of laphet.

"One is the sour, salty, and spicy kind, and the other is the regular plain pickled laphet. People buy both," he said.

He said most people bought their laphet from unmarked glass jars where it was sold in bulk at local markets.

"No brands are written on the jars ... In our country a lot of women like laphet. A lot of them eat it. They don't seem to be particularly alarmed about this," the resident said.

"They are still eating it. Even in my own house the wife made some laphet salad or pickled ginger salad today. We eat it, and people aren't talking about it much, and they don’t seem too alarmed about it either," he said.

Meanwhile, a trader on the Thai-Burma border said he was restricting sales to the Yuzana brand of laphet, which was not on the tainted list.

"We don’t sell any other brand. The only other laphet that we sell is plain pickled laphet without any brand. We sell a little of that kind," he said.

Products 'recalled'

He said public trust appeared strong in Yuzana laphet.

"As far as I know they are still eating that, and we are still selling it. The price has even gone up," he said.

Back in Burma, laphet producers pledged to start cleaning up their product's image.

Shwe Pyi Tan said it would recall and destroy all tainted products.

"We are trying our very best to recall and collect all our allegedly tainted products from the market," the Shwe Pyi Tan employee said.

"We have taken photographs of how our tainted products have been roasted and buried in the ground."

And the owner of the Ayeedaung laphet company said the company had frozen laphet sales pending further tests.

"I have ordered all sales to stop in all my shops and have recalled all my products from the market," he said.

"I have reordered fresh produce from the hills. We will conduct tests, and only when the products have passed the tests will I process them and start selling again."

Original reporting by Ingjin Naing and Nay Rein Kyaw for RFA's Burmese service. Director: Nancy Shwe. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Translated by Soe Thinn. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.