Forbidden Fruit: New study finds bacteria, chemicals often contaminate Bangkok street fruit

BANGKOK (AP) — Fruit buyers, beware.

A survey of the Thai capital's ubiquitous fruit carts that sell snack bags filled with juicy watermelon chunks, papaya slivers and exotic treats such as pickled guava has found the fruit also contains unsafe levels of bacteria and chemicals that help keep it looking fresh in Bangkok's tropical heat.

The Prime Minister's Office launched a one-month campaign Monday to encourage fruit vendors and their suppliers to improve hygiene and provide consumers with safe, clean fruit. Authorities warned another survey will be taken at the end of the month after which vendors selling contaminated fruit will face up to two years in prison and fines of 20,000 baht ($650).

"We want people to be aware of the problem," said Ong-art Klampaiboon, an official in the Prime Minister's Office.

The study conducted throughout August by Bangkok City Hall, the Thai Food and Drug Administration and other health agencies sampled fruit from 38 vendors across the capital, where baggies packed with watermelon or pineapple sell for 10 baht (30 cents) and pricier guava costs 25 baht (80 cents).

Results of the study found that 67 percent of 153 samples of fresh fruit contained unsafe amounts of coliform bacteria. Coliform bacteria is common in digestive tracts and does not necessarily cause sickness, but its presence may indicate fecal matter, E. coli and other disease-causing organisms.

The study also found that 40 percent of the fruit tested contained anti-fungal agents like salicylic acid.

"Vendors love this acid for pickled fruits. It keeps the skin from turning dull and keeps fungus from forming," said Kobchai Pattarakulwanit, a coordinator of the study and a microbiology professor at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.

Of the pickled fruits tested, 64 percent were tainted with hazardous chemicals, mainly color dyes to keep the guavas extra green and the mango slices bright yellow.

Unsafe levels of synthetic pigments were found in 16 percent of the tested fruit.

Authorities are urging fruit buyers make sure their vendors wear plastic gloves and use stainless steel cutting boards, which are easier to clean and less likely to be contaminated.

Kobchai said highly contaminated fruit could cause diarrhea, nausea, fever and, in severe cases, result in death.

"This has become a way of city life. The best thing you can do is make sure your vendors are handling their fruit hygienically," Kobchai said.