“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well”, said Virginia Wolf while describing food as medicine. Food intake with conscientious understanding of its impact and daily physical activity combined can make a person safe, sound and free from ailment. Safe food is thus a major influencing factor for sound and active health.
According to World Health Organization and Food and Agricultural Organization, food is considered safe if there is reasonable certainty that no harm will result from its consumption. Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.
The food safety situation in Bangladesh is at an alarming stage due to food adulteration, use of toxins, pesticide residues, microbiological contamination, veterinary drug residues and heavy metals. The consequences of such threats as observed in the past are three million people suffered from diarrhea during 2005-2009 and about 15 % of children died (2011) as reported by DGHS. The long term effects are very severe especially renal failure, liver damage and cancer which are increasing rapidly in Bangladesh.
Heavy metals, such as lead, chromium and arsenic accumulate in the body that might cause kidney and liver failure and develop abnormality among children.
Banned pesticides that caused serious health hazards have been found in fruits, vegetables, milk, milk products and dry fish. National Food Safety Laboratory has recently found that 40% of 82 samples contained pesticides that had been banned more than one and half decades ago for high toxicity. According to the findings of the NFSL, some regular food items like carrot, bean, tomato, banana, mango etc. were contaminated with toxin pesticides, and presence of banned pesticide Aldrin was found in milk and milk products.
At present in Bangladesh, juice and fruit drinks are totally unsafe. Rice and puffed rice are full of urea; fish, milk and other green vegetables are full of formalin and chemicals; dry fish with DDT powder; and burnt lubricants are used indiscriminately in the preparation of many food items. This situation is unprecedented and increasing too fast due to inadequate enforcement of law and absence of visible deterrent punishment to delinquents.
The government is undergoing the process of finalising the rules under the Food Safety Act 2013 and have also decided to constitute Bangladesh Food Safety Authority. Besides, there is a plan to set up food courts to dispense with such cases. It is expected that the government might take it as a national issue to address the crisis quickly.
This practice of adulteration and deceiving the customers was found prevalent in this sub-continent with different nature but within tolerable limits. To address the same, Pure Food Ordinance of 1959 was promulgated as a landmark, followed by Pure Food Rules, 1967 and Pure Food (Amendment) Act, 2005. In 2005, the government constituted National Food Safety Advisory Council headed by a local government minister. But this council could hardly handle the critical issues relating to food safety.
The issue of coordination of food safety activities is prime factor to combat adulteration and bring back to track the whole process.
The question of identification of level of adulteration needs laboratory test, detection of contents of mixture, legal authority to prosecute the sources of supply and production, and legal agency to take the lead in nabbing the offenders. In fact, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Ministry of Food, Ministry of Agriculture, Local Government Division, Ministry of Fisheries and Livestock, Ministry of Commerce, Ministry of Industry and Ministry of Home Affairs and Ministry of Information can play a very important role in food safety issues. Besides, Civil Society Organisations and mass media can also contribute much to generate awareness and resist its repetitions.
Food and Drug Administration was established in the USA and Food Safety and Standard Authority started functioning in India with trained personnel with the capability of enforcement of law and understanding of its complications from scientific knowledge and background. Almost all countries around the world are concerned about the coordination of such complicated issues. The question of human rights, detection of offence accurately and also extent of punishments are great concerns with food adulteration.
Bangladesh Standard and Testing Institute were established in 1985, Consumer Right Act, 2009 was approved by the parliament with the functioning of a department under the guidance of a council headed by the commerce minister. Rapid Action Battalion is also maintaining strong vigilance to detect any such case of adulteration. In fact, there are arrangements to detect the defaulters with the laboratory test and enforce the exiting laws to combat the menace but concerted efforts are inadequate.
However, the Local Government Division under its Urban Public and Environmental Health Sector Development Project with ADB support has started construction of a Food Laboratory in Chittagong and up-gradation of Food lab at Dhaka with Tk 45 crores through the technical support of consulting firm from FRG. A by-law is going to be finalised soon for the Food safety and Standard (Management and Control) by the City Corporation.
“Crimes go unabated for lax of government watch” was the observation of a seminar recently held on the food safety in Bangladesh. The major point raised during the discussion was whether public are taking “food or poison”.
Food adulteration by unscrupulous traders, importers and manufacturers, growers and processing agencies involved in these practices are dominating the total trade since the law enforcing agencies are indifferent and the government is unconscientiously neglecting this critical threat to public health. Such adulteration is visible from “farm to pork” but who cares to control it.
We cannot afford any more delay in addressing such a serious threat to public health.
Dhiraj Kumar Nath is a former secretary and adviser to the caretaker government.