Readers' Submissions

Produce or Us, National Embarrassment again..

  • Written by BKKSteve
  • June 23rd, 2007
  • 12 min read


Watching my wife choose four medium sized tomatoes she placed them in the bag at Villa Market and handed them to the lady who measures and affixes a small tag with the pricing information. The lady hands me back the bag and I notice these four medium sized tomatoes cost 425 baht! $12.50 USD at current exchange rates. We continue walking and my 14 year old son, very aware of the price of produce in the states vs. here, looks longingly at the fruit but doesn’t even make a move towards a plastic bag knowing I’ll insist he select what he normally likes and enjoys. He tries to walk past and I can tell he’s being both careful about prices and considerate about my pocketbook, but I stop him and tell him to pick out at least two pieces of fruit for each of the next five days. Two peaches, two plums, a small skid of strawberries, and a few bananas later and the lady hands me back the bags marked with prices totaling over $30.00 USD. So far we’ve got enough fruit for one person and four tomatoes. By the time we very conservatively choose some other items for salads and cooking we’ve spent well over $100 USD on produce for our five day shopping cycle. And people in the states are complaining about $4 a gallon unleaded?

Sure, this is the high priced organic section of the highest priced market in Bangkok. I can reduce my produce cost to a quarter of the organic figure by selecting items from across the aisle which aren’t organic and a quarter of that if I shop from street vendors assuming they have the items I want which they usually don’t. I’ve tried this but you can actually smell and taste the chemicals on them even after vigorous washings. The taste and colour is atrocious as well. I try to put such things from my mind but over a year ago the investigative reporter blood in me kicked in and I started paying attention and making notes. What I’ve found scares me. My next step is to call in some favors and have measuring and monitoring equipment flown in to confirm what I’m sure I already know, but then what would I do with it? No Thai paper will publish the truth and if it gets tracked back to me obtaining my next visa would require a miracle. Those of you who read my submissions weekly probably recognize I’m balancing on the diving board deciding if I want to jump in right about now, create one of my submissions where I go off on the Thai system or if I’ll step back down off the board and pick a better fight somewhere down the road. I’m going to jump, but I’m going to try to keep things on an even keel. Let me explain why.

Recently we had a military coup, farangs have become targets of convenience nightly on most every Thai news channel, visa restrictions have been put in place, and life in general for the farang has taken a definite turn for the worse. Farangs are moving out of Thailand at a record pace disenchanted and upset at the same time. Up until now it hasn’t bothered me, I’ve taken it in stride trying to understand the Thai point of view and I still firmly believe these things cycle, given time things will return to our favour if we stick it out long enough. During all of this the baht vs. dollar exchange rate has reduced my disposable income by roughly 34%, which for me means the 50,000 baht a month I used to travel, drink and play with.. and never thought twice about.. is no longer. Sure, I could put less in savings and more in my monthly transfer to make up for it, but I’m choosing not to because I want to feel and experience the same ‘squeeze’ other farangs on fixed incomes are feeling and you can’t pretend for a few months.. you’ve got to live it for the duration right alongside everyone else. There’s more, but I’ve taken these things all in stride because frankly they’re just inconveniences and small adjustments in my standard of living, nothing that would hurt me long term. Not so when it comes to the problem of quality foods and produce I mentioned above.

Typically in the states when we go grocery shopping we pile on the produce with lots of fruits and veggies, heavy on beans and whole grains, and light on meats and deli. We pay attention to what and how much we eat because it not only affects long term health, but also how you feel day to day. The air we breath, the fabrics we wear, food we eat, water we drink, all of it affects our long term health and while I’m not a fanatic about such things I am a concerned consumer and have made it a point to self-educate and stay informed because the grocery industry is a big money maker and where money can be made corruption will take place. And it just plain pisses me off when people lie and cheat about the food we put into our bodies because it directly affects our health, unlike a television set or the latest movie at the fourplex. I feel the same way about corruption in the medical industry. If anything is going to get me to leave Thailand it won’t be the coup, the bad press, or the exchange rate. It will be because I can’t reasonably find the healthy foods and/or medical services necessary to live as I always have. Allow me to go further into this:

Since I’ve started making a concerted effort to pay attention to this area I’ve noticed some patterns at Villa Market. There is limited space so they can’t stock everything. The items they do stock they want to make the largest profit margin possible. All stories want to do this, but Villa Market has stepped way past the bounds of good business and is probably on the extortion side of things. Some examples would be Country Time Lemonade mix in a large container that makes 4 quarts of product for 190 baht. It’s been replaced by an inferior product called Crystal Light in containers 1/3rd the size at a 50% price increase. They’ve done this with nuts, chips, soups, and just about anything on the shelves. When selecting what items are stocked great preference is given to physically smaller much higher priced products so as to maximize their limited floor space, even when their customers are telling them they prefer other products and doing so in great numbers. The average person just assumes they can’t get that item anymore, they never even consider it’s a size/weight/profit margin issue and the store is literally forcing certain products down our throats vs. the products we prefer just to make money. And yes, these are standard business practices.. but they’re done in such a way with Villa Market that in the states they’d be investigated and given lots of news time. Not so here where the business suits and government authorities have much more control. We could move into examples concerning their meat, dairy, and other areas all equally corrupt and unhealthy, but I would rather cover some other areas.

Most of us have heard of cancer clusters. Would you be surprised to learn that Bangkok is one giant cluster of cancer with just a few clean areas? The pollution levels should be obvious, but did you know the construction industry is allowed to not cover and contain during asbestos removal? They can tear down a building with asbestos all through it and the fine particles drift for miles falling into homes all around. When they paint they’re allowed to use high pressure sprayers with a 45% overspray vs. HLVP sprayers with a 5% overspray rate. And the paints they’re allowed to use run the gamut from those with high lead content to petro chemicals outlawed in most western countries ages ago. The type and amount of fine particles in the air are too numerous to cover without a long term study and thousands of pages of documentation, but when you start making an effort to pay attention to this stuff you’ll find yet another toxin to add to the list on a daily basis. How do I know about cancer clusters in Bangkok? People are concerned. People who are doctors and civic leaders who have children going to school here, and locals who have educated themselves about such things out of concern for their family and communities just like we’ve done in the west in decades past as we demanded environmental changes. It’s not hard to find these groups, nor to sort out the kooks from the genuine article. When you first listen to them the natural skepticism is sounding off in your mind, but soon you can sort out the wheat from the chaff and the people who are actually involved with treating the children with cancer or covering up local water tests and so on start becoming known to you and the picture it draws is truly scary.

We all know that if we get caught for most any vehicle violation a few hundred baht to the officer who stopped you prevents a citation from being written, or that on household goods shipments there’s a standard under the table 10,000 baht fee handled through the shipping company to ensure the Thai tax collectors aren’t there at the unpacking to start racking up taxes and fees on the many items most people have that exceed the allowable limits. Corruption is wildly rampant in SE Asia and the Thais have it down to a science. If corruption is so common in every other aspect of the Thai culture, what would make any reasonable person think the health and food industries aren’t corrupted at least as much?

Corruption we know about and it’s serious. Abject ignorance we try to ignore, yet when I made a series of trips to the farms that supply Bangkok with a great deal of the meat and produce and dairy products I found a great number of small time farmers who like farmers everywhere are barely making it and who will use whatever chemical products they can get at the cheapest prices. There are no ethics or concern for your health here when western countries routinely off-load ship loads of products at bargain basement prices not allowed to be used in their own countries for decades. And we haven’t even covered the lack of modern and clean processing and storage facilities used to butcher meats, bottle milk, and package the rice and other grains used throughout the food industry.

I grew up working in restaurants. Once I disassembled and cleaned a four port soda fountain, the type where you draw Pepsi and Coke mixed in the machine using the canisters of syrup, water, and bubbly.. What I saw during that cleaning made me so disgusted I didn’t drink soda from a fountain for years. We’ve all heard that if you visit a rendering plant we might not eat meat again. Or clean out a grain silo and for the rest of your life you’ll be examining your Wonder bread for bug parts. Lifting up the covers on the Thai system is worse than all these things combined. Third world country equals third world regulations. Corruption at all levels of business and government equals clear and present danger in EVERY aspect of your health products including medical and food. There is enough here to keep a 60 Minutes and 2-3 other like shows in sensational headlines for years, yet we’ll hear nary a word about such things because of who controls the media and because when you have a general population educated at the lowest levels and culturally trained to submit to and not question authority.. business can get away with murder. And they do.

My solution? I’ve taken a multi-level approach and I still don’t feel comfortable. I’ve installed a very high quality water filtration/treatment system and we use this water for all cooking, drinking, and travel. I pay outrageous sums for produce ‘hoping’ they’re truly organic and healthy and then I wash them many times, realizing corruption and ethics are so bad I might not be ensuring much at all. I try to buy only frozen meats and packaged products from western countries that have good reputations. When I eat out I try to just not think about it. There’s a bar in Nana that serves a really nice looking cheeseburger, I’ll close my mind long enough to enjoy it. I don’t even want to think about what I’d find if they allowed me to inspect the processing and ingredients. <This joint is owned by two Americans and I am sure they do their best to maintain decent standardsStick> In western countries we count on our government and the general nature of people for a certain level of safety when it comes to such things, but it would be a serious mistake to think the same in Thailand. The good news is that you can grow your own produce all year round in Thailand, so the next time I move I’ll be looking for a decent sized roof to make my own garden on, and if I ever move out of the city I’ll have my soil tested before renting/buying and start producing my own foods. I’m a city boy, not at all the sort of person who would even consider growing my own food under normal conditions. Imagine what it’s taken for me to make a garden a priority in my life..

Until next time..


Stickman's thoughts:

I thought this was a really tremendous submission. When I first came here I noticed how dirty so many things were, how poor the hygiene was of people preparing food – and I got sick quite often. I guess my body has become accustomed over time and antibodies have built up to fight the local filth.

Like you, I try not to think about things too much because if you do, it can seriously damage your enjoyment of life. There are reasons why so much is cheap here….