By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
RANGOON — Burma's Health Ministry on Sunday banned the sale of 57 brands of pickled tea leaves, a popular snack food found to contain a harmful chemical dye.
The state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper announced the ban, saying the chemical Auramine O was detected in the products as part of an ongoing investigation after 43 brands of the snack were banned earlier this month.
The ministry said Auramine O is commonly used to dye cotton, wool, silk and leather and that prolonged consumption of it in food could be harmful to the liver and kidneys and cause cancer.
Pickled tea leaves are widely eaten in Burma as a snack with condiments such as fried garlic, peanuts and dried shrimp or with curries and are commonly served at social occasions. The dye gave the snack a brighter yellow color.
"I don't know what's safe and what's not," said Khin Mar, a 65-year-old housewife in Rangoon, Burma's largest city. "I'm worried that we are eating poison everyday."
A doctor from the Health Ministry's Food and Drug Administration said chemical dyes are widely used in Burma in items such as bamboo shoots, chili powder, dried meat, soft drinks, certain beans, popular snacks such as preserved fruits and sometimes in raw fish and seafood. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The production or sale of harmful food is punishable by up to three years in prison, but enforcement is not strict, the doctor said.
A news report last week said 105 food producers have received warnings about using harmful chemicals.
"The problem we're facing now is worse than the impact of melamine-tainted milk powder because chemical dye is used in a lot of food in Myanmar [Burma], including junk food and snacks eaten at schools by young children," said Than Htut Aung, a publisher and editor of several news weeklies in Burma.
He called on authorities to take action against those who violate food safety laws.