BANGKOK — Good news: Lab tests found orange juice confiscated from an illegal production ring last week was the real stuff after all, and not fake OJ as widely reported. The bad news? It contains bacteria commonly found in animal feces and therefore violates food safety laws.
And worse news: The Department of Medical Science ran the same tests on 12 other samples of OJ collected randomly from the Bangkok metropolitan area and found the same fecal bacteria in some of them.
“Sixty percent of our samples exceed the limit,” Apichai Mongkol, director of the Department of Medical Science, said Tuesday. “That means they aren’t clean enough. It’s also against the law, because the product didn’t meet the standards. It put the public at risk.”
Four Vietnamese nationals were arrested on May 23 and accused of running the unauthorized juice operation in Saraburi province. The arrests led to renewed concerns over food safety in Thailand, where food poisoning can seem as common as som tum stalls.
Apichai said the test results of the OJ confiscated from the four suspects will be sent to health officials in Saraburi, who will in turn forward them to police for prosecution efforts. The Food and Drug Administration will go after those responsible for the failing samples in Bangkok, he added.
Although coliform bacteria does not generally pose any immediate risk to humans, they are an indicator that the production process was vulnerable to other dangerous diseases such as cholera.
“It doesn’t mean it would directly cause any diseases,” Apichai said. “But it means that if [the vendors] have cholera, consumers would have been infected. It’s an indirect indicator. We must prevent this at the beginning, instead of containing diseases after they already spread.”
Apart from the unhealthy levels of coliforms, the OJ produced by the four Vietnamese in fact met safety standards; the saccharin, preservatives and artificial color the vendors put in the juice did not exceed the legal amount, he said.
The director also advised consumers to buy only FDA-approved foodstuffs marked with small parallelogram marks filled with serial numbers on the container.
Like this one.
“Whatever food didn’t receive FDA approval will have this kind of problem,” Apichai said. “If it won FDA approval, it was inspected, and the production is clean.”
Vendors to be Deported
As for the four Vietnamese vendors whose OJ operation caused much panic on social media throughout last week, they are awaiting trial in prison, said Col. Samart Kaewmanee, commander of Muak Lek Police Station.
The four have been charged with illegally entering the country, taking up jobs restricted to Thai nationals and producing food without an FDA permit, he said.
Samart said he believed the juice made by the four suspects was from real oranges, because he saw piles of fruit at the production site, but it won’t help the suspects in the upcoming deportation process.
“They will be definitely deported,” he said.
He declined to say whether the four Vietnamese suspects were represented by any lawyers.