Toxic lead chromate, popularly known as Sharshephul Rang in Bangladesh, is widely used in turmeric by suppliers to make their colour vibrant and more appealing to buyers from companies. Slack quality control of companies led to contamination of several turmeric brands. The photo was taken form a bazaar in Natore, a key turmeric producing region. Photo: Star
Be careful. Do not buy dry turmeric, buy wet ones. Dry turmeric has excessive lead.
Packaged and unpackaged turmeric powder, too, contains high level of lead that poses health threats.
It is all because a section of traders are using artificial colour to make the spice look brighter to attract customers, The Daily Star has found.
Recently, this newspaper sent samples of turmeric -- wet and dry and packaged and unpackaged powder -- to Bangladesh Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (BCSIR) for testing the presence of lead in it. All the samples were bought randomly from different markets in Dhaka and Bandarban.
The test found as high as 182 parts per million (ppm) lead in the dry turmeric. The unpackaged powder samples contained 2.4 ppm of lead while it was between 3.41 ppm and 55.14 ppm in the packaged ones. In the wet samples, lead was almost non-existent.
The permissible limit of lead in the product is 2.5 ppm in Bangladesh.
Lead can accumulate in the body over time and too much of it can cause various health problems, including delayed mental and physical growth and learning deficiencies. It is particularly dangerous for expecting mothers, infants and young children, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of the US.
Scientists at the BCSIR said the use of a chemical, yellow lead chromate, is one of the main reasons for excessive lead in turmeric, a spice used for cooking by every Bangladeshi family. The chemical is usually used in painting industry.
Locally known as "sharshe phul colour," the chemical is available in the market in turmeric producing regions, mainly in Natore and Rajshahi, according to traders and spice processing companies.
Masud Hasan, a turmeric grower of Natore Sadar upazila, said traders use the artificial colour to hide the marks of pest attacks and other spots on raw turmeric.
It is used during boiling and polishing to make the spice look brighter to attract big buyers, including spice processing firms.
The issue of excessive lead surfaced after the US authorities late last year detected high level of lead in Pran's turmeric powder, prompting recalls by stores that purchased the product to sell to consumers there.
Four stores in New York, Dallas and Detroit had recalled the turmeric powder, after the FDA, the New York State Health Department and private laboratory tests detected excessive lead in the product.
In a statement on October 17, the FDA said the turmeric powder, packaged in transparent plastic flexible bags (400g), contained 48 ppm of lead.
SLACK QUALITY CHECKS
Most spice processing companies buy turmeric from traders as they are yet to develop direct contact with the farmers.
And in the absence of proper quality checks by the companies, the traders supply the big firms with contaminated turmeric.
After the detection of high level of lead in Pran's turmeric by the FDA, The Daily Star in October last year bought samples of packaged turmeric powder marketed by Pran, Square, ACI and Partex Star. The samples were sent to the BCSIR in November.
The test showed the samples of each brand contained lead ranging from 3.41 ppm to 55.14 ppm, which is way beyond the BSTI standard limit.
BSTI tests are mandatory before marketing of these products.
A reliable source in the industry says in some cases companies provide “special samples” to the BSTI for tests. These samples are “specially made” and they contain low level of hazardous elements.
Also, test results vary from sample to sample. Test results shared by Square and Partex Star, for example, showed that lead in their turmeric was within the BSTI limit.
As for Square, the company sent to the BCSIR for testing the sample of the batch this newspaper had sent. This time the test found 0.5 ppm of lead in it.
On the difference of the results, BCSIR scientists said the results were based on the sample they were provided with and that they could not explain the difference.
"We do not add anything to our spices," said Khurshid Ahmad Farhad, senior manager and head of export of Square Consumer Products.
He added a section of traders were using artificial colour in turmeric, and his company came to know this following an inquiry into the supply chain.
Shariful Islam, a wholesaler in Natore, said, "We do not use the colour. Small traders do it."
Naser Ahmed, chief operating officer of Pran spice, said his firm also did an investigation and found that suppliers were using the artificial colour.
"Our suppliers had kept us in the dark about it. But they admitted to using the chemical during our investigation. They said they were unaware of its health risks," he said.
Pran has already sacked 12 of its 15 listed suppliers over the presence of excessive lead in their supplies, he claimed.
The inquiry found that lead enters into turmeric from 27 sources, beginning from the soil, Naser said.
"Soil in some regions contains high level of lead," he said, citing test results. "Lead contamination also takes place while cleaning turmeric using alum."
About the company's turmeric powder available on the market, he said it was now safe for consumption.
Atique Al-Murad Khan, head of consumer marketing of Danish Foods Ltd, a concern of Partex Star, said they were cautious about procurement, particularly in the wake of the FDA tests of Pran's turmeric powder.
"We now carry our tests before procurement. And we buy only those that contain lead below 2 ppm," he said, claiming that they added nothing artificial while processing.
The ACI says it undertakes quality checks for each of its products time to time.
"In case of turmeric, the BSTI and the SGS [a Geneva-based inspection and certification company] tested our ACI Pure Turmeric Powder recently and found the lead contents were well below the BSTI standard limit," said its Executive Director Syed Alamgir.