The country is immensely lacking in technical capabilities to detect adulteration and contamination in food, leaving public health under severe threat.
So far, safe food campaign here has been limited to creating awareness and operations of mobile courts punishing perpetrators in spot inspection.
Looking into hygiene issues is what these courts do in absence of facilities to detect food adulteration and contamination.
Only 50 of about 1,500 laboratories in the country are capable of running a limited number of food tests.
They mostly find in food its composite elements but are unable to detect presence of any external elements.
‘Our capability is very poor with respect to technical capacities,’ Bangladesh Food Safety Authority chairman Mohammad Mahfuzul Hoque tells New Age.
‘We do not have enough laboratories and the ones we have are not up to the mark,’ he admits.
Mahfuz finds laboratory procedures sophisticated and can only be performed by trained people, which Bangladesh seriously lacks.
In 2016, BFSA, while preparing its maiden lab directory, gathered information on lab technicians as well and found that their knowledge of the matter was far less than required.
According to the directory, only seven out of 50 food testing laboratories are accredited in the country.
FAO food safety scientist in Bangladesh Masud Alam explains accreditation as the certificate about a lab’s ability to run tests properly.
Accreditation has to be taken separately, Masud says, for the laboratory infrastructure, machinery in it, their operators and each of the tests.
He says that results from tests done at unaccredited laboratories may be disputed in courts.
Accreditation can be achieved from national and international bodies.
In 2010 Bangladesh Accreditation Board was established, accrediting only 52 laboratories so far.
‘Labs take accreditation voluntarily,’ says BAB deputy director Nasirul Islam.
‘Only those exporting feel the need to be accredited,’ he mentions.
Last year, BFSA failed to prosecute six powdered milk importers even after their products tested positive for lead contamination for lacking authenticity of lab tests.
The tests were done at unaccredited laboratories and were considered unreliable, BFSA chairman Mahfuz says.
In January 2018, BFSA revealed detection of lead much higher than permissible limit in the milk powder brands.
The incident prompted Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission to receive accreditation for detecting lead in milk in October.
BAEC is the only accredited place for detecting lead in milk in a country where yearly import of powdered milk is over 100,000 tonnes.
According to the BAB website, BAEC is accredited to test 15 metals in samples of water, fish, shrimp, feed and milk.
BAEC runs a wide range of other tests in addition to the accredited ones but none is accredited.
Similarly, Institute of National Analytical Research and Service is the only among the eleven institutes under Bangladesh Council of Scientific and Industrial Research to have accreditation.
The institute has accredited 74 parameters for testing water. Tests at the laboratory cost up to Tk 3,000. Each heavy metal detection test costs Tk 2,000.
‘Food safety is a complex issue. There is no limit to test to ascertain that a food is safe,’ says BCSIR scientist Shamim Ahmed.
Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institution, the national standards regulatory body, does not have accreditation to run all these tests on water.
BSTI allows numerous products into market without testing them properly.
For instance, production of soft drink including fruit juices and fruit drinks is permissible in the country. But BSTI cannot test preservatives, colours, flavours and sweeteners being used in the drinks.
The Johnson and Johnson baby powder scandal exposed further BSTI incapacities. It is alleged that the global cosmetics giant overlooked presence of cancer causing asbestos in its baby powder.
The revelation has sent shocks across the world with many countries investigating if the J&J products in their markets contained the chemical.
BSTI is incapable of running the test though it allows marketing of the powder.
Another major food testing lab in the capital is the public health and food laboratory near Dhaka South City Corporation office. The lab is still unaccredited and does not have an analyst since December 31, 2017.
BFSA needs to go a long way as shortcomings are aplenty, mentions FAO national team leader AKM Nurul Afsar.
All the 728 BFSA safe food inspectors are on additional duty as employees of ministries of health and LGED, city corporations and municipalities.
They have very little training in food safety issues but are expected to perform duties as crucial as collection of samples in the field and inspection of food establishments.
They joined government service after completing their 12th grade. Later they had a three-year diploma in sanitation. BFSA only gave them training for three days on food safety.
None of the inspector except for the ones stationed in Dhaka ever prosecuted a single food adulterator under the safe food law since BFSA came into being in 2015.
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