Pervasive culture of impunity undermines food safety campaign

Emran Hossain | Published: 00:41, Mar 22,2019 | Updated: 14:34, Mar 22,2019


A woman packs spurious power in a factory in Dhaka. — File photo

Food safety campaign is limping in Bangladesh due to its pervasive culture of impunity.
Due to half hearted drives by government agencies the food safety law takes rest on papers.
Poor enforcement and indifference to respect the law became pervasive keeping pace with a strange culture of impunity.
At least half a dozen government departments regularly hold mobile courts in the capital with little or no visible impact on the market.
The drives by government officers failed to end marketing of adulterated , contaminated or date expired foods.
The drives failed to generate trust among the consumers
‘It seems immoral activities became pervasive,’ executive magistrate Sarwoer Alam told New Age.
Known for chasing big companies marketing unsafe food, Sarwoer expressed deep disappointment over the tendency to flout the law.
‘Wealthy business tycoons feel that they are above the law and that they would not be held to account for flouting the law,’ said Sarwoer.
‘Even if they are caught they can buy their way out,’ he added.
And small and mid-level businesses also know how to take chances, he said.
They are ever ready to grease the palms to remain free after getting caught red handed for flouting the law.

Profiteering is their fundamental driving force for not quitting substandard food selling, he said.
‘The obvious message is none cares for the law and morality,’ said Sarwoer.
He said that possibly only a handful people rectify themselves and most of the wrongdoers enjoy their foul play.
The perennial absence of the rule of the law created the situation as well as the foul players, he said.
None using dangerous chemicals in foods were punished though incriminating evidence of the crime against the helpless consumers were detected time and again.
Bangladesh Food Safety Authority is virtually inactive outside the capital.
BFSA created an unenviable record of moving the food courts mostly with regard to deceptive advertisements.
BFSA earned the reputation of not taking any step against big companies.
Rare moves taken by BFSA against big companies are immediately stalled by High Court orders. BFSA never takes an initiative to have the orders vacated.
Sarwoer reported an alarming expansion in the businesses of unsafe foods.
Sarwoer said, the business of Bangla protein, animal protein made of chromium contaminated tannery waste, increased manifold in the recent
Currently, he said, everyone living in some of the villages in the Bhkaurta union in Savar earned their living by producing and marketing Bangla protein.
On January 22, during a raid across a three square km area, Sarower found that the villagers were drying tannery wastes in open fields and Bangla protein was stacked in sacks on the roadside or courtyards.
He said that it took three days and several hundred litres of kerosene to burn tannery waste seized during the drive.
The Department of Livestock Services office at Savar told New Age early this month that they were planning to raid the area again as the villagers resumed their old business.
The government’s ongoing food safety campaign is limited to holding mobile courts in the capital.
Targets of mobile courts, operated separately by different government agencies including Bangladesh Food Safety Authority, are often businessmen at the end of a complex food chain.
As mobile courts mete out punishment instantly their activities are mainly concerned with checking hygiene practices at food outlets or factories or a product’s date of expiration.
Other technical aspects of food adulteration remain almost completely ignored or unattended though the government prioritized food safety as one of its key commitments to people.
‘It seems authorities responsible for ensuring safe food are yet to comprehend their role properly,’ said former Bangladesh Food Safety Network chairperson Farida Akter.
Farida, also the executive director at UBINIG, a community based policy and action research organization, said that hygiene practice undoubtedly constitutes an important aspect of food safety.
‘But there are many other ways in which purity in food could get affected,’ she said.
Safety of food can be compromised through contamination, which can be both intended and unintended, caused either by humans or environment.
On the other hand, deliberate addition of harmful or substandard ingredients can also make food unsafe for consumption.
Technological advancement leading to introduction of genetically modified crops has also become a source of concern for food safety campaigners for its potential threats to health.
In Bangladesh is present all these sources of food contamination.
‘An ideal food safety campaign would have to address all these problems,’ said Farida.
Farida said that hygiene issues could be solved by educating people about hygienic practices.
She considered it more of an unintended human intervention rather than a criminal offence.
Over the years authorities concentrated efforts mostly on prevention of unhygienic practices at food installments and achieved very little success.
Established in 2015, BFSA dedicated its first years of operation on creating public awareness about food safety.
BFSA achieved very little through its awareness campaigns and on occasions was even accused of distorting people’s idea of safe food.
For an instance, BFSA circulated advertisements in newspapers with an aim to dispel fears among public about health impact of formalin application in ripening of mangoes.
In public meetings it argued in favor of ripening fruits using not only formalin but also carbide and ethopen, though use of carbide for ripening fruits was banned.
Drawing on international practices, the BFSA said artificial ripening of fruits was completely safe, especially with fruits with hard
But it was a part of the story the regulatory body was highlighting. It failed to inform people that the ripening agents in use in Bangladesh are of industrial grade.
A Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology study last year revealed that chemicals used as artificial ripening agents were highly contaminated, containing up to a dozen other chemicals, some of which could be very harmful to health.
The study also revealed that there are pores in hard peel through which the chemicals could get inside fruits.
Artificial fruit ripening is strictly regulated in developed countries where specific technologies were developed by the state for safe ripening of specific fruits.
The BFSA never taught businessmen the safe way of ripening fruits or even determined a method for it.
On occasions, the BFSA opposed government institutions too and gave statement that ran counter to scientific evidence, damaging people’s trust in information supplied by government offices.
For an instance, last year a BFSA investigation concluded that Miniket rice was cultivated in Bangladesh, which is exactly the opposite of what Bangladesh Rice Research Institute say about it.
According to BRRI, Miniket is derived from over-polishing of BRRI-29 rice, a popular rice variety in Bangladesh.
The BRRI has a campaign to create public awareness about Miniket being over-polished rice and lacking in nutrient content.
After chromium presence in poultry meat was reported in media, the BFSA did not take long to dismiss possible health impact from consumption of chromium contaminated protein.
It said that chromium gets destroyed while cooking and does not enter human body.
But scientist said another story.
They cited researches to show how chromium gets stored in different body parts after consumption of contaminated protein.
They said that 2700C temperature was required for destroying chromium which was far higher than our cooking temperature.
BFSA executive magistrate Tusher Ahmed said that when malpractices became widespread the best way to deal with it was to make people aware against its harmful effects.
‘Well informed consumers could help food safety drive to great length,’ said Tusher.
He said that authorities should focus more on educating consumers on food safety issues so that they could identify dishonest businessmen and stop buying their products.
‘Consumers are in great need of an honest source of information,’ said Tusher.
Tusher conducted 30 mobile courts since joining BFSA in October last year. He fined Tk 1.10 crore and jailed two people for violating safe food act.
Tusher found too many laws impeding food safety campaign for their overlapping jurisdictions.
For an instance, he said, selling expired food could be punished with a fine of Tk 4 lakh under the food safety act whereas the consumer rights protection act makes it punishable with a fine of Tk 50,000.
‘People may find it discriminatory,’ he said.
Bangladesh has one of the largest numbers of laws relating to food safety. Over a dozen ministries are responsible for enforcing at least 16 laws that are connected with food safety.
Still it seems not enough to ensure safe food for all as there was hardly a system of mechanism for implementing the laws.
Farmers continue to apply excessive pesticide in absence of government initiative to educate them on safe pesticide use.
Agricultural products are also found contaminated with high antibiotic and heavy metal residues. Gaping leaks across value chains expose them to widespread microbial contamination as well.
Pigments used by dyeing industry were found to colour foods, including candies and chewing gums. Restaurants were found using textile grade colours in biriyani.
Fertiliser ingredients like ammonium nitrate were found in sweets and bakery items to increase its shelf life and make it crispier.
Restaurants hardly followed hygiene codes while foods were prepared there next to open toilets. And many of the ingredients in the foods had gone
Though Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institution certifies quality in drinks, among many other food items, it did not have the capacity to check the kind of preservative used in it.
The Johnson and Johnson baby powder scandal thrust under spotlight that BSTI does not have the capacity to test asbestos in talcum powder.
The BSTI drives are largely limited to factories selling drinking waters in jar. The BSTI certificates are given on minimal tests.
The whole safe food discussion is centred on privileged section of the society. Underprivileged section of the society remains largely out of safe food discussion.
In Dhaka about 63 lakh people live in slums.
A research by International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh recently revealed that nearly 86 per cent of the slum people were denied access to safe drinking water.
Dhaka North City Corporation executive magistrate Sajid Anwar said that authorities need to go a long way to put in place a system taking care of food quality in every stage of food production.
‘A change is taking place though at a slow pace,’ said Sajid.
Bangladesh Food Safety Authority chairman Mohammad Mahfuzul Hoque said that the pace would have been faster had other government departments played more active role.
He admitted that the ongoing awareness campaign needed to be strengthened to change people’s mindset.
Replying to questions about confusing consumers with contradictory and unscientific statements, he said, ‘Our statements were based on our own findings.’
‘Food safety cannot be ensured overnight,’ said Mahfuz.
‘We are working on it and it will take time to get the results,’ he said.

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