Safe food remains a far cry in Bangladesh

Safe food remains a far cry in Bangladesh
22 November 2020

The institutionalisation of safe food eludes Bangladesh as the authorities concerned have failed to transform into actions plans laid out in the law book or repeated as rhetoric.

Food safety-related laws with a dozen ministries, their allied organisations and local government organisations such as city corporations have thus failed to create an impact in decades.  

The oldest of the safe food-related laws dates back to 1959, but the authorities still think that the time is not ripe for the strict implementation of the laws and keep advocating awareness campaigns.

‘Unfortunately, we are still stuck in a mindset that cares the least for safe food,’ food minister Sadhan Chandra Majumder told New Age.

Sadhan admitted that many of the foods on our daily menu, including milk, are either adulterated or contaminated as businessmen continued inflating profit by illegal means.

The fact that businesses continue repeating illegal practices to increase profit serves as evidence to the existence of an unholy nexus offering a way out through corruption, said consumer rights activists.

For decades the government has been enforcing safe food laws fragmentarily with the declared policy of not hurting businesses but rather trying to persuade businesspeople into changing their attitude by making them aware about safe food practices.

But businesses still use textile colours in food, make artificial cow milk using soap, shampoo and other chemicals, sell date-expired food, refrigerate cooked food next to raw food and serve stale food to customers while their employees, too, care the least about safe food.

The atmosphere inside restaurants is deplorable with kitchens set up next to open toilets and many food processing factories never clean their machineries leading to lead and other contamination.

‘The government is using the safe food campaign for promoting businesses, rather than building an effective mechanism to stop food fraud to protect consumers,’ said Consumers Association of Bangladesh vice-president SM Nazer Hossain.

CAB’s doubt about the government intention to institutionalise safe food finds ground when the same practice of ruining food quality to inflate profit persists with companies repeating the same offence.

Last week the Shwapno super shop, a retail chain, was warned after a monitoring team from the Bangladesh Food Safety Authority found artificial colour at trays containing liver and meat.

The company last year was found selling date-expired meat.

The BFSA skipped information about the entire monitoring drive and circulated only a mobile-team operation at a separate Shwapno outlet finding everything in perfect condition.

A pure-food court in January found that the Bangladesh Standard and Testing Institution had destroyed evidence relating to the prosecution of 61 companies accused of marketing 73 uneatable packaged food items last year.

The court accused the BSTI of trying to mislead the trial and deliberately frame innocents in order to let real culprits go.

‘No number of institutions or laws can ensure safe food when the government and its organisations are in favour of dishonest businesses,’ said Nazer.

The BFSA got its first food analyst about five years and eight months after rolling into operation and still does not have a food testing laboratory.

Last year the prime minister spoke about constructing a specialised food testing laboratory with branches across divisions but the  BFSA is not even near to owning a laboratory till the date.

The BFSA for the first time appointed 67 officers for all the districts but the lack of office and other logistic services stand in their way of carrying out duties.

Many of the sections of the food safety act cannot be enforced in absence of rules, providing food frauds with an easy escape.  

Last week, Abul Khair Group, a leading consumer goods company, walked out of a pure-food court with an acquittal on the grounds that the law did not permit prosecution over cheating people with deceptive advertisement due to the lack of rules.

Defeats are inevitable with the BFSA appointing its designated inspectors, class-II government employees, to fight highly qualified lawyers with overseas degrees defending accused at pure-food courts.

‘We are fighting a losing battle,’ said food safety inspector Mohammad Kamrul Hasan, frustrated over the Abul Khair case.

The BFSA even could not form all the technical committees that it was required to under the Safe Food Act 2013. A few committees that it constituted do not meet regularly either.

BFSA member Monzur Morshed admitted that they made no progress in determining safe limits for food additives and other chemicals in foods as foods are produced, industrially processed and stored.

Another BFSA member Abdul Alim believes that they cannot ensure safe food unless they are joined by the authorities overseeing primary food sources.

‘Authorities like the departments of agricultural extension, livestock and fisheries must enforce good agricultural and aquacultural practices,’ he said.

The practices, also known as GAP and GAqP in short, require guidelines and a system to ensure safe ways of handling agricultural inputs, said Abdul Alim.

The call for introducing the practices has been around for about two and a half decades and grew louder in 2010 after formalin was detected in fish but was never heard again.

Excessive levels of pesticides detected regularly in vegetables, fruits and rice grown in the country have become a major health concern, say consumer rights activists.

Traders lure farmers into using excessive agricultural inputs taking advantage of their lack of knowledge of the matter. The government never tried to prevent traders from wrongly influencing farmers.

Antibiotics are mixed with feeds and fodder in the fish, poultry and livestock industries though laws banned even unprescribed therapeutic use of antibiotics a decade ago.

The banned deadly DDT is regularly found in dried fish even by piecemeal government tests.

Industrial wastes are regularly released into water bodies from where heavy metals pass to soil turning even grasses poisonous and rice contaminated with the dangerous substance.

‘We have a very difficult task at hand. We can’t do anything in many cases but we are trying to make them aware who can,’ said Monzur Morshed.

The agriculture and food-value chains are replete with gaping leaks causing another round of degradation in the quality of food.

A recent BFSA investigation revealed widespread contamination of cow milk with harmful elements caused by improper ways of carrying and preserving it.

The cold chain is hardly maintained in pasteurised milk marketing leading to its widespread contamination.

The sale of locally grown genetically modified aubergines without label is another example of non-existent value chain. 

The processed food industry is almost beyond the jurisdiction of the Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institution that has a very limited mandate.

Only 73 processed food items need mandatory standardisation certification while there are hundreds of processed food items available in the market.

Imports of food, significantly meeting the demand for many foods such as milk, occur unregulated as far as food safety is concerned.

There is almost no safety screening for the imported food. Rare safety requirement documents provided by the importer are received usually without putting them to use, said sources.