January 16, 2023
JAKARTA – The government urges parents to be more vigilant and has ordered local health agencies to increase their monitoring of food establishments, particularly after multiple children throughout the country were poisoned by consuming a street-side snack that was frozen by liquid nitrogen.
The snack in question, locally known as Chiki Ngebul, named after a popular Indonesian packaged snack brand, has taken social media by storm in recent months, as children would often record themselves eating the snack with smoke from the liquid nitrogen coming out of their mouths.
But the social media sensation has also resulted in a number of food poisoning incidents.
Speaking to the press on Thursday, the Health Ministry’s director for environmental health Anas Ma’ruf said there had been at least nine confirmed incidents of food poisoning due to the snack since last year.
“From the data that we have collected, [food poisoning from the snack] has only happened in 2022. We cross-checked [our data] from 2021, 2020 and 2019 and there were no reports of it,” Anas said.
The country’s first case was reported in East Java’s Ponorogo regency in July 2022 in a child that had freeze burns on their skin after consuming the snack.
West Java’s Tasikmalaya regency reported more incidents of food poisoning in November 2022. Health authorities later ruled out 16 cases for not showing any symptoms, but confirmed food poisoning in the remaining seven after showing symptoms of nausea, vomiting, dizziness and stomach pains.
An additional four cases were also reported in Bekasi, West Java, in December 2022. While three were similarly ruled out for not showing any symptoms, a four-year-old was confirmed with food poisoning after showing severe stomach pain.
The child’s father, Jamaludin, later told Kompas that his child required an operation after doctors found a two-centimeter tear in the stomach after consuming the snack.
Health authorities are also currently investigating another likely case in East Java.
Dangerous in copious amounts
Liquid nitrogen is not inherently poisonous and is often used in food preparation as a preservation agent.
But, Anas said liquid nitrogen could be dangerous when consumed in large amounts and pointed to the fact that the snack has been widely sold by street vendors, hawkers as well as in night markets, which escapes the National Agency of Drug and Food Control (BPOM) supervision, as a potential cause for the spike in food poisoning cases.
“Liquid nitrogen [could reach temperatures] of minus 190 degrees [Celsius]. So if it comes into contact with the skin it can cause frostbite or cold burn […] It could also cause respiratory and digestive problems if inhaled and swallowed [in large amounts],” Anas said.
The Health Ministry penned a circular earlier this month, in a bid to prevent future cases of food poisoning from Chiki Ngebul.
The circular instructed regional administration and local health agencies to supervise the circulation of food products using liquid nitrogen, but has not banned the product outright.
Local health agencies are also instructed to educate the children, parents and food vendors on the dangers of liquid nitrogen.
Restaurants that serve food containing liquid nitrogen must also be put under the local health agency’s supervision and are required to disclose to their customers that their food contains the chemical. Meanwhile, street vendors and hawkers are discouraged from selling the product.
While the Health Ministry has yet to declare the recent case spike as an extraordinary health occurrence (KLB) on a national scale, reasoning that cases have so far been sporadic, the West Java province, where most of the cases have been found, declared its province to be under KLB on Tuesday.
In an online statement, acting West Java health agency head Nina Susana said in response to the Health Ministry circular, her ranks took its precaution a step further by reevaluating the permits of establishments that serve food containing liquid nitrogen.
Epidemiologist Dicky Budiman of Griffith University, Australia, argued that educating the public and more monitoring might not be enough and instead urged the government to urgently impose a temporary ban for the sales of the snack.
“The first option when it comes to handling an outbreak like this is to stop [the circulation of the snack],” Dicky said. “The central government and regional administration must act fast.”