IT GETS MESSY: POISONOUS CARBON MONOXIDE TO ENHANCE TUNA FRESHNESS IN FIJI

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[See Part I: Fake Fish: Plans To Enhance Fiji Tuna at http://pidp.eastwestcenter.org/pireport/2002/January/01-01-13.htm.] 

SUVA, Fiji Islands (January 2, 2002 – Sun)---Treating tuna loins with poisonous carbon monoxide to enhance its freshness and deceive the eyes of overseas markets is not a joke.

And it was also not a joke when we tried grabbing an interview with the owners of the company that had boldly moved on to start this "enhancing" process here in Fiji.

The Permanent Secretary for Fisheries, Vuetasau Buatoka, said his office had been informed that some companies were in the process of producing this dangerous and fraudulent product.

"No specific company name was mentioned in a letter that I received so I am also doing what you are doing -- investigating," Mr. Buatoka said.

He said a prominent member of the fishing community wrote the letter.

The SUN, after weeks of unreturned phone calls, decided to drop in uninvited.

As a journalist, it was always a silent rule to be very honest when trying to pursue an interview. Introduce yourself, make it very clear that you are a journalist and briefly tell them what you are after, our media superiors would tell us. We did all these, but because there was nothing forthcoming from the company we decided to drop in uninvited.

We drove for a good fifteen minutes from our Walu Bay office before entering a well-secured building with gates and a security guard. We asked to see the director, giving the security officer the director’s name and the news organization we represented. Even though the building housed an office upstairs we were told to go to another building. Little did we know that we would be sent again to this same building, which we will refer to as the ‘Factory.’

We entered the office and after almost 30 minutes of waiting we were told by the forever-irritated-with-us secretary to go to the other building (Factory) because the director was too busy to talk to us.

The tone and excuse given by the secretary was all too familiar to us because we would receive the same reception every time we called the office to talk to the factory owner.

The secretary placed a call and said something like, "SUN people are coming over there. Mr X (boss) has authorized the visit and he’s okayed Mr. Y (factory manager) to talk to them."

Whether a call was made to the factory manager or not on what we were after, he sure was defensive and very particular with his answers.

Are you setting up a fish-processing factory downstairs, the SUN asked the factory manager.

"Oh no!" came the reply with a little laugh.

"It’s just a bulk store with nothing really. We are just storing our machines there."

We asked the expatriate manager if he had ever heard of carbon monoxide treated fish. He said he was familiar with it and described the process but denied knowing anything.

Yet the bulk store accommodated most machines and other requirement for this "enhancement process."

There were thousands of small packets of gel making up two small mounds on the bulk store floor. A compressor had been painted by workers with so much care that it looked brand new again.

"We market frozen fish, sashimi and we do not use a compressor," a fish exporter said.

Just before we interviewed the factory manager we had a good look in the bulk store.

"This is going to be a fish processing plant. That is why you see all these things," one of the five men working in the factory said.

There were freezer containers outside and what shocked us was the strong denial from the manager and the workers’ proud announcement of a fish factory.

Questions forwarded to the Ministry of Fisheries on whether any fishing license had been issued to the company received a negative reply.

"No, sorry not on our list of fishing license holders," Mr. Buatoka said.

However, sources within the Fisheries Ministry revealed that the factory owners had approached the Ministry for a fishing license using a prominent indigenous Fijian as his front last month.

Efforts to return to the Factory for another interview were futile.

Last week, the SUN visited the place again and saw foreign looking gas cylinders in the room.

About five tall slim navy cylinders stood in a corner bound together by some sort of packing wire.

"We got those gas cylinders from overseas. But I don’t where they are from," a worker in the factory said.

Workers at the engineering firms expressed shock with such cylinders.

"We do not use that color here in Fiji, not even for welding," an engineer at Marine Industrial & Structural Engineering Limited said.

Attendants at the Dive Centre (Fiji) Limited said that no such cylinders in color or length were used by divers. "Sorry, it must be for cooking. Try Fiji Gas."

A phone call to the gas company was informative and clarified that they used only silver cylinders.

"Silver cylinders store acetylene gas that is used for home cooking and also welding. Sorry my friend we can not help you there," came the reply.

While still at the Factory we managed to get the expatriate factory manager on his mobile phone, standing outside his factory.

"Sorry, I won’t be able to talk to you now because I am in a meeting," he said.

"But what is it you want to talk about?" he asked.

We told him in one sentence that we wanted to talk to him more about his new fish factory and were cut short, but we managed to remind him that we would call again the next day.

But that was the end of things to pursue further talks with the company.

Health inspectors responsible for giving the factory the green light for the factory could not reply to faxed messages sent out last week.

"I am sorry I would not be able to reply to this because my superior is on leave and is out of the country. He will have to take it up to the local government council meeting that has the last say on whether or not to release the answer to your fax," the spokesman said.

[Next Report: A commentary on the process where compressor, ice gel and gas tanks fit in.]

For additional reports from the Fiji Sun, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/Fiji Sun.

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