MANDEVILLE, Manchester — Fish vendors in the Mandeville market say news that they are using embalming chemicals to keep their fish fresh has wiped out their livelihood and dented the fish industry in this parish capital. They say fish sales have plummeted and are demanding an apology from the parish council which they say has tainted their reputation.
News last week that the government chemist had found levels of the chemical formaldehyde in samples of fish taken from the market, sent shock waves across the parish and led shoppers to turn their backs on fish sold there. The samples were taken after complaints surfaced in March that a shopper had fallen ill after eating fish purchased there.
Formaldehyde is an embalming powder used in funeral homes to keep bodies fresh.
But the vendors say the matter was handled poorly, as the news was made public before they were consulted. A meeting between the parish council and fish vendors on Monday turned stormy, after vendors vehemently denied embalming their fish, becoming boisterous on several occasions.
When the Sunday Observer visited on Thursday, the usually busy fish market area had all but disappeared. No fish was on sale and the few vendors milling around were in a militant mood.
They said since the news broke, no one has been coming in to buy fish. They say normally, they'd make an average $6,000 - $10,000 per day and more on weekends, but that had dropped to almost nothing. "See it deh, a $500 mi mek from morning," one vendor said.
Another said she had only made $1,000.
Jean, who said she has been selling fish for well over 20 years, said the few vendors who turned out to the market had to be frying their fish and eating it. She showed the news team a coal fire on which the fish were being fried, and a few persons who identified themselves as fish vendors were indeed eating fried fish.
"Si wi yah. We haffi a fry the fish and a eat them wiself. Nothing nuh wrong wid wi fish." She, along with other vendors, said the claims against them smacked of "sabotage".
"First dem seh the sample negative, den dem seh it positive. Why the first time the sample come it negative, then positive and is the same fish? Why?" asked Jean.
Wally Forbes, another vendor, said it was unfair that the person who had fallen ill as a result of the fish did not attend the parish council meeting.
"Wi nuh know her. She nuh come and seh well a me, or a dah person deh she buy from." Patricia, another vendor, agreed. "You caan mek everybody suffer fi one person," she said. But the vendors said when the issue was raised at the meeting, they were told the complainant did not have to be present since the fish were found to be contaminated.
The vendors told the Sunday Observer that fishermen from whom they bought their fish, were now threatening to sue them. One vendor said she owed fishermen in Treasure Beach $72,000. Another quoted $70,000. "Dem nuh care 'bout what a happen. We tek dem goods, dem a look fi dem money".
Still, parish council officials say they have not placed a stop order on fish vending. Secretary Manager Alfred Graham said the Manchester Health Department would be taking further samples from the market and from fishing beaches to determine the origin of the formaldehyde. But Acting Chief Health Inspector Ira Farquarson said the department has not yet gone after additional samples.
"We're communicating with the food specialist in the Ministry of Health. There's a process involved and we understand there's a cost attached to the sampling...I'm not sure what the cost is," he told the Sunday Observer. He said the Ministry was moving to implement a sampling programme in all of central Jamaica.
In the meantime, there are mixed reactions from restaurants in and around Mandeville, as to whether their fish sales have suffered. Manager of Grove Court Restaurant, Elaine Binns, said, "To be frank, since the story broke, we haven't gotten any customers ordering fish. But we don't buy our fish from the market. We get fish straight from Treasure Beach or White House". She is expecting sales to drop further, as "you not gonna come in and order a fish dinner, because you're going to wonder", she said.
But assistant manager of Cherry Delite Restauraunt, Joan Blanchard, said her business has not been seriously affected, "because we do slice fish". "I definitely haven't seen a drop in sales. People are still coming in to buy their sliced fish." She says she does not buy fish from the market, but from a nearby meat shop or from the seaside.
However, vendors said a number of small business operators who buy directly from them, have been affected. "One lady who operates her business on the highway came to buy fish this week. She was overseas, so she never know what a gwaan, a wi haffi tell her," one vendor said.
Wally said the fish contamination issue has also affected the livelihood of a number of fishermen who sell directly to the market people.
The vendors place blame for the way the issue was handled squarely at the feet of councillor for the Mandeville division, Sally Porteous, for not consulting with them when she received the complaint that someone had fallen ill. But Porteous has reportedly said she would like the police to investigate the matter to find out how the vendors got their hands on the substance.
Head of the Manchester police, Superintendent Lascelles Taylor, told the Sunday Observer that the police have not been called in to investigate. He said it wasn't a matter that the police would take up on their own as "the scientists would have to show the evidence and prove it before the courts".
Formaldehyde, which is also reportedly used in household items such as pressed wood, cigarette smoke and fuel burning appliances, can be bought in some local pharmacies. Industrial Chemical Limited said they don't stock the chemical, but Haughton's Pharmacy in Mandeville say it's sold there. A pharmacy representative told the Sunday Observer: "We don't have any in stock now. But when we do, you have to get a prescription. You couldn't come by and just pick it up. No reputable pharmacist would sell it like that."
Sylvia Lyn of Lyn's Funeral Home said she keeps her embalming fluid under lock and key. "We don't use the powder. We use the fluid. It's not available locally. We lock it up and take out a bottle at a time when we need it," she said. She added, however, that formaldehyde was widely used in hospitals and elsewhere "to preserve specimens".
Meanwhile, the fish vendors say instead of pointing a finger at them, the authorities should look elsewhere.
One vendor, Jackie, said the authorities should investigate the fishermen who are using dynamite.
"Dem need to go behind the cays where di man dem live...dem neva try go inna di meat shop and supermarket and go si what kind a fish dem have in deh," she said.
Wally added that there was no way the vendors could be blamed, as they buy fish from a number of different places.