DOH: 'Fake' vinegar not really unsafe

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, May 20) — An official from the Department of Health (DOH) said local vinegar brands made out of synthetic or so-called "fake" ingredients are not exactly "unsafe," but will have to be probed for mislabeling their products.

An inter-agency investigation is underway in the wake of a study by the Philippine Nuclear Research Institute (PNRI) that eight out of 10 vinegar brands are made out of synthetic acetic acid, rather than fermented coconut sap or sugarcane.

"'Yun kasing synthetic acetic acid, 'pag ginamit siya sa vinegar, then we consider it as adulterated product. It's not necessarily unsafe, kaya lang ang vinegar na for human consumption sa ating batas, naka-define siya as acetic acid from natural fermentation," Health Undersecretary and Spokesman Eric Domingo told CNN Philippines' Newsroom Ngayon.

[Translation: When you use synthetic acetic acid for vinegar, we consider it as adulterated product. It's not necessarily unsafe, but under our laws, vinegar for human consumption is defined as acetic acid from natural fermentation.]

Domingo also sits as officer-in-charge of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) after President Rodrigo Duterte sacked its director general Nela Charade Puno last week.

The DOH, Department of Science and Technology, Department of Agriculture, and Department of Trade and Industry are set to meet Monday afternoon to discuss the vinegar issue. For now, Domingo said they are looking for the PNRI report to name the brands said to be using synthetic acid.

Raymond Sucgang, section head of the PNRI Nuclear Analytical Techniques Applications Section, said the use of these synthetic acetic acid "can be the source of various degenerative diseases." On Monday, PNRI Director Carlo Arcilla clarified these findings.

"We have not stated that the non-fermented acetic acid are cancerous. That is just a speculation or even a misrepresentation of the comments," Arcilla told CNN Philippines.

"Ang problema doon ay kung ano ang kahalo niya [The problem is what's mixed into the acid]. When you manufacture synthetic acetic acid, there will be some by-products and that will have to be taken away. 'Yung purity as food grade has to be ascertained and also labeled in the product," he added.

Domingo said that the use of manufactured rather than natural acids in the condiment is not really a health hazard, but that the bigger issue is mislabeling.

READ: EcoWaste Coalition calls for establishment of 'safety committee' on 'fake vinegar'

Domingo said there are 274 registered vinegar products with the FDA, which should all be made up of natural ingredients. 

"At the correct concentration, wala naman tayong alam na masamang effect ng acetic acid whether natural siya or synthetic siya. Kaya lang, hindi lang siya ang dapat na component ng pagkain [we don't know of a negative side effect of acetic acid whether natural or synthetic. But it shouldn't be the only component of food]," Domingo said.

"It's exactly the same acetic acid as DOST has said, kaya lang kapag pagkain kasi, gusto natin galing siya sa natural na mga pamamaraan ng pag-produce ng acetic acid. Kailangan lang, kung dineclare nila na natural siya, dapat 'yun din ang laman. Hindi pwedeng mag-mislabel," he added.

[Translation: It's exactly the same acetic acid as DOST has said, but for food, we want that it comes from natural ways of producing acetic acid. What's necessary is if they declare it as natural, its contents should be natural. You can't mislabel.]

Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol said separately that the PNRI study on local vinegars was endorsed to the Food and Drug Administration as early as March 2018 but it appears that the recommendation was not picked up by the agency. For his part, Domingo said there are currently no indications that this is connected to the termination of Nela Charade Puno as FDA chief.

Vinegar brands using synthetic acids should be pulled out of the market, Piñol said.

PNRI's Arcilla explained that the PNRI has only concluded which vinegar products are natural or artificial, but said that it is the FDA which can determine if the synthetic ones pose health hazards or not.

"Hindi naman lahat ng artificial ay masama... [Not all artificial goods are bad.] It depends on the purity, and those things are ascertained by the FDA at saka 'yung consumer protection ng DTI," Arcilla added, saying that this is why the PNRI did not reveal the vinegar brands yet.