Lazy journalists, racist netizens and opportunistic politicians almost convinced the world that Indonesia was facing a plastic rice scare.
On May 5, a YouTube account called LiveLeak Channel uploaded a 2.29 minute video clumsily titled “Rice fake from plastic in china” (www.youtube.com/watch?v=haSsXxxQBSo). The noisy video shows what appears to be a polyamide nylon factory making granules of plastic, possibly from recycled material. There was nothing – apart from the misleading title and description – to suggest it was making fake rice.
Other nonsense uploaded by LiveLeak Channel includes a video titled “NFL Draft Nerves Cause Baby Squirrel to Stress Eat” – showing a squirrel nibbling breakfast cereal and being fed milk as player selections for America’s National Football League are announced. Other clips on the channel show violent accidents and assaults. LiveLeak is hardly a reputable source of news or information.
But some people are dumb. And many people, unfortunately, love an excuse to criticize China. On May 13, a YouTube channel named Destry Z re-uploaded the “fake rice factory” video, giving it the title: “AWAS!!!! Beras Palsu buatan Negara China!!! (BEWARE!!!! Fake Rice made in China!!!).” The video soon gained over 392,000 views and was re-uploaded by dozens of Indonesian YouTubers. The clips elicited many derogatory comments about China, although some netizens pointed out that it was just a regular plastics factory.
On May 15, the Indonesian Consumers Foundation (YLKI) said it had not received any complaints from the public regarding fake rice. Nevertheless, YLKI’s legal affairs and complaints officer Sularsi called on the Trade Ministry, government agencies and the public to be on the lookout for counterfeit food imports.
On May 16, the Harian Terbit newspaper published an article warning that China was producing fake rice. The report urged Indonesians to be vigilant, although it admitted there was no certainty that plastic rice was being circulated in Indonesia.
On the same day, MNC Media’s Global TV broadcast the YouTube video and claimed the factory was making fake rice – despite not having a shred of evidence to prove its allegation. Later, Metro TV aired the same video, claiming it showed a counterfeit rice factory.
All of this ‘news’ of fake rice filtered through to the community. On May 18, a rice porridge vendor from the West Java city of Bekasi, Dewi Septiani (29), declared she had unwittingly purchased and consumed some plastic rice.
She had bought six litres of rice on May 13 from a vendor at Tanah Merah traditional market for Rp.8,000 per litre. She claimed the rice did not turn into proper porridge but instead became congealed, making her, her younger sister and nephew sick after they ate it. Having seen the YouTube clips and the news reports, she assumed they must have consumed synthetic rice.
Police questioned the vendor and one of his suppliers, and closed his shop. Dewi’s porridge shop was also closed pending investigations. On May 20, samples of the rice – including some cooked by Dewi – were taken by police for tests, conducted separately by state-owned certification company Sucofindo, the National Police, the National Agency of Drug and Food Control (BPOM), the Trade Ministry and the Agriculture Ministry.
Sucofindo was quick to announce the results of its tests, on May 21 claiming the rice contained traces of polyvinylchloride (PVC), a synthetic compound which is usually used to make pipes. Specifically, it had found traces of three types of plasticizers used in the manufacture of PVC: benzylbutylphthalate (BBP), 2-ethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP) and diisononyl phthalate (DINP). It did not state the percentages of the synthetic materials it had found.
Meanwhile, lazy reporters found an old online news article from South Korea from 2011, claiming that rice made out of plastic was being “massively” sold in China. The report, citing unnamed media sources from Singapore, said “plastic rice is made by forming potatoes and sweet potatoes into rice-like shape, then adding industrial synthetic resins.” It warned that “eating three bowls of plastic rice is the same as eating one vinyl bag.”
These ‘facts’ quickly made their way into Indonesian and Malaysian media reports. Even before Sucofindo had released its results, the Jakarta division of hip regional city news network Coconuts.co on May 20 proclaimed: “Plastic rice is real, as shown in this video of its production in a Chinese factory.” Oh dear. An accompanying article on http://jakarta.coconuts.co claimed “this video at least confirms that plastic rice is a real thing”. Utter garbage.
On May 24, Home Affairs Minister Tjahjo Kumolo, a long-time loyalist of former president Megawati Sukarnoputri, claimed the ‘distributor’ of fake rice may be attempting treason or sabotage to bring down the Government.
He demanded the State Intelligence Agency investigate the case.
There were unsubstantiated claims that a girl who fell sick in the North Sumatra capital of Medan had eaten plastic rice. “A 10-year-old girl was rushed to hospital … after suffering from a swollen stomach caused by eating rice contaminated with synthetic materials,” cried The Jakarta Post. The same newspaper reported that several tonnes of synthetic rice had been confiscated in Papua province.
Two politicians who called for calm and common sense over the scare were President Joko Widodo and Jakarta Governor Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahaja Purnama.
On May 26, National Police chief General Badrodin Haiti, after a meeting with the president and other top officials, announced that all of the other tests were negative, so there never had been any plastic rice. He advised the public to stop panicking over the issue.
So why had Sucofindo come up with different results? Badrodin said Sucofindo may have been using different analysis methods or contaminated equipment.
BPOM head Roy Sparingga confirmed that his agency had found no synthetic polymers or heavy metals in the rice. He said the World Health Organization’s International Network of Food Safety Authorities had informed BPOM there were no recent cases of synthetic rice in other countries.
Trade Minister Rachmat Gobel said his counterparts in China and Malaysia had assured him there was no fake rice in distribution in their countries.
Legislator Firman Subagyo, a member of Golkar Party, said he suspected the fake rice hoax was masterminded by “the food mafia” seeking to benefit from public concern ahead of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadhan, which starts about June 18 this year. He said police should investigate whether Dewi, the porridge seller, had a hidden agenda in making her claims about plastic rice.
Dewi said she was merely a concerned mother who had no intention of scaring people, but merely wanted them to be careful when buying rice.
It’s understandable that people were quick to suspect China might be making fake rice. China does not have a sterling record when it comes to food production. In 2008, at least six Chinese infants were killed after drinking powdered milk adulterated with melamine – an industrial chemical used in plastics and insecticide.
Indonesia’s plastic rice scare distracted the media and the public from more important issues, such as police dropping a corruption investigation into their deputy chief, Budi Gunawan, and a Jakarta court trying to throw out a massive case of alleged bribery involving former taxation director general Hadi Poernomo.
It never hurts to be on the alert for contaminated or counterfeit food. It also doesn’t hurt to think twice when the media presents unverified rumours as facts.