PETALING JAYA (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - The sacred bowl of rice that used to save lives could now be harmful - and even deadly.
Plastic rice laced with poisonous resin has reportedly reached the shores of several Asian nations. The rice is said to stay hard after it has been cooked.
The plastic rice, reportedly made from potatoes, sweet potatoes, with synthetic resin moulded into the shape of real rice, is said to have made its way into countries with large rural populations such as India, Indonesia and Vietnam.
One latest rumour said that the fake rice had entered Singapore.
But a spokesman from the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority (AVA) told The Straits Times: "As part of AVA's routine surveillance, imported rice is regularly inspected and sampled to ensure compliance with our food safety standards and requirements.
"Our sampling tests cover a wide range of food-borne hazards. Thus far, the testing results have been satisfactory.
"We have not received any feedback on fake rice."
Health experts and dieticians have warned that consuming such fake grains could be lethal or seriously damage the digestive system.
News of the fake rice, commonly sold in Chinese markets, especially in Taiyuan in Shaanxi province, has been circulating on popular social media platforms such as WhatsApp and Facebook.
But the Malaysian Agriculture and Agro-based Industry Ministry has said it has not received any reports on fake rice.
Its minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob denied receiving such reports, and assured that consumers would be taught how to identify fake grains.
Speaking to reporters after a Young Agropreneur meeting on Monday, Datuk Seri Ismail said complaints of fake goods fall under the purview of the Domestic Trade, Cooperatives and Consumerism Ministry.
"However, we will assist the ministry regarding the technical side of identifying rice.
"For example, we can give consumers pointers on how to differentiate between fake and real rice," he said.
Malaysian Domestic Trade Minister Hasan Malek said the news on fake rice, which has gone viral on the Internet, might be true or false, but the ministry would not take such things lightly.
"I, too, have heard about the news. The news can be true or false; we don't know about it. We also don't know if the fake rice has landed in the country but we cannot take such things lightly.
"We will carry out investigations nationwide," Datuk Seri Hasan said on Monday.
Mr Hasan added that the investigating team would focus on small sundry shops to check whether they were selling the fake rice, especially in the outskirts and rural areas.
"We will conduct our investigations, but at the same time I would like to plead with consumers to come forward and report to the ministry if they come across such rice.
"All reports made will be treated confidentially," he said, adding that the ministry would take action against errant traders.
Sources from the rice industry said such rice would not be sold openly at supermarkets and hypermarkets.
"If there is existence of this rice in Malaysia, it would most likely be sold in small shops," one source said.
He also noted that it would be hard for wholesalers to bring in the plastic rice following strict regulations at the country's entry points.
"However, there are possibilities that the plastic rice can be smuggled in through the border states," he said.
Smugglers can use various methods to bring in the product as they know it would be hard to detect if the plastic rice was to be mixed with normal rice, he said.
When contacted, National Heart Institute (IJN) chief dietitian Mary Easaw-John said: "Some substances, such as plastic resin, are not meant to be edible and in the long run will have negative implications on the digestive system."
Food adulteration is a serious problem. About 300,000 people fell sick and at least six infants died in 2008 when Chinese milk and infant formula was found to be adulterated with melamine.
Later that year, melamine was also discovered in Chinese eggs.