Food industry: Impacts of chemical-induced fruit ripening

  • Lobbied for regulation, no proactive measures in place: Ranjith Withanage
  • Broader testing for compliance needed
  • Streamlining monitoring, regulation under discussion: Lasantha Alagiyawanna

By Sarah Hannan

The news of traders spraying a chemical to induce ripening in bananas caught the attention of many recently. The question of consumers being purposely poisoned by traders for profit sprung up, as media outlets started to question the company that was selling the product.

However, the use of ripening agents in the food industry in Sri Lanka is not new. In the ’80s households were warned about the repercussions of consuming produce that had been subjected to calcium carbide-induced ripening. After a considerable amount of lobbying by concerned citizens and later backed by findings presented through a body of research locally and internationally, the use of calcium carbide was halted. 

As a result, this recent development raised concerns on what ripening agent the traders were spraying on fruits this time. The Sunday Morning reached out to the authorities and an association that protects consumer rights for their views were over the matter. 

Ministry of Health – Environmental Health, Occupational Health, and Food Safety Division Director Dr. V.T.S.K. Siriwardena had personally visited the wholesale traders to see what ripening agent they were using. 

Dr. Siriwardena told The Sunday Morning: “The product that these traders were applying to fruits produces ethylene gas that helps with the ripening process. It is not a synthetic substance but is a naturally-produced gaseous compound when certain fruits ripen. This gaseous compound is marketed to induce flowering in pineapples and has clear instructions on how it should be applied. It is not an illegal or dangerous chemical.” 

Dr. Siriwardena also stated that what he had learnt from speaking to the traders was that they were not following the instructions and instead just mixing the liquid ethylene with water and spraying it directly onto the fruits.

“I took some photos of the bottle that they had with them and the instructions clearly indicate that they are to dissolve one ml of product to one litre of water and then add citrus. The fruits are to be kept in an enclosure and the solution is dispersed using a sprinkler to the enclosure and not directly to the fruit. When I asked for a demonstration, they poured the product into a spray can without measuring and added water and sprayed the mix directly on the fruits.”

The Sunday Morning also inquired whether any studies had been conducted on the danger of consuming fruits sprayed with large doses of ethylene gas, to which Dr. Siriwardena responded that they were yet to uncover the health implications. 

“There was a commonly used ripening agent known as calcium carbide which was used to ripen fruits such as papaya and mangoes, and even tomatoes. After scientists presented a body of research on the health implications, we took measures to ban the usage of calcium carbide. Today that substance is not in use in the food industry as a ripening agent. Awareness needs to be increased among traders and vendors and even the public about the chemicals that are in use which are approved by the Food Safety Division and the dosage that should be used to aid the ripening process.”

Proactive action needed

Movement to Protect Consumer Rights Convenor Ranjith Withanage speaking on whether the organisation was lobbying to bring in regulation over the use of such chemicals, said: “For years I have been lobbying the authorities to regulate the use of such ripening agents on fruits and certain vegetables. While the harmful effects of using such chemicals on foods that we consume are evident, the lack of regulation and monitoring has allowed vendors to use chemicals in an unsupervised manner. Some of these ripening agents are applied to fruits in a haphazard manner and it is the consumer who will have to pay dearly with various health complications.” 

According to Withanage, it is not only the ripening agents that we need to be concerned about. He pointed out that even in many instant foods available in the market there are additives and flavour enhancers that get into our bodies one meal at a time. Prolonged consumption of such foods can cause health repercussions.

“Some companies do make healthy alterations to their products and that is a sign of them actively listening to consumer concerns and being concerned about the health implications such additives could cause in consumers. The best example is the flavour sachets that we come across in instant noodles. Today you may notice that the ingredients of these flavour sachets include traceable ingredients. Hopefully, the authorities will proactively take action in regulating the application of ripening agents as well.”

Monitoring process to be introduced

State Minister of Co-operative Services, Marketing Development, and Consumer Protection Lasantha Alagiyawanna commenting on what action the Government would take in this regard stated: “Spraying ripening agents to fruits is not a new practice. Since I was elected to Parliament in 2004, we have brought this matter in the House on many occasions. However, the responsibility of regulating and monitoring this activity has been delegated under various ministries and departments. At the time, the responsibility was paddled between the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Science and Technologies. However, with the amendments made in 2011 to the Food Act of 1980, the responsibility to monitor and report on ground activities was delegated to the Public Health Inspectors.”

Alagiyawanna noted that on Thursday (17) a meeting between stakeholders was called with the participation of officials from the Ministry of Health, the Industrial Technology Institute and the Consumer Affairs Authority. Following their discussions, the stakeholders are to come up with an action plan on how to streamline the process of monitoring, reporting, and creating awareness on the dangers of using such chemicals without proper supervision and the possible impact on consumers’ health.

Science behind induced ripening 

There is a body of research pointing to different methods and the dangers of using certain chemicals. 

In 2019, the Hindawi International Journal of Food Science published a review article titled ‘Induced Ripening Agents and their Effect on Fruit Quality of Banana’ authored by S.D.T. Maduwanthi and R.A.U.J. Marapana affiliated to the Department of Food Science and Technology, University of Sri Jayewardenepura. 

The study used as the base for the review article recorded that sensory quality is the same in the fruits treated with ethylene gas and acetylene gas (calcium carbide) when compared at the same stage of ripeness.

Maduwanthi and Marpana noted that since banana was a climacteric fruit farmers tended to harvest the fruits at the pre-climacteric stage for ease of transportation. The possibility of artificial ripening allows traders to minimise losses during transportation and supply the fruits as needed to the consumer at their desired ripening stage. 

Explaining the scientific method used to ripen fruit they explained that ripening rooms should be used to apply ethylene gas, where the room is temperature- and humidity-controlled and ethylene gas concentration is regularly monitored. The room should be equipped with proper ventilation and exhausting systems, while the fruits should be properly packed, and catalytic generators should disperse the ethylene gas at the proper temperature and humidity levels.