Palash Manmud’s father died of cancer caused by adulterated food, when he was a boy of five. This left a mark on Palash who now pursues a law degree. He went on to establish Conscious Consumers Society, of which he is the executive director, a platform to make youths aware about adverse effects of food adulteration. Nahid Riyasad takes the interview for New Age Youth
New Age Youth: Would you like to share your educational journey?
Palash Mahmud: I completed my primary education in Asaasuni of Satkhira. Later, I moved to Khulna and completed my higher secondary education in 2005. I completed my post-graduation from Jahangirnagar University from the history department in 2013.
Currently, I am on the last year of a law degree from Dhaka Metropolitan Law College.
New Age Youth: Why did you choose to work against food adulteration? What was your inspiration?
Palash Mahmud: When I was five, I experienced the death of my father. Later, I found out that the cause behind my father’s death was food track (pipe) cancer. According to government reports, on the one hand, 70 per cent of food is adulterated in Bangladesh which is causing serious disease like cancer. On the other hand, adulterating food is violation of consumer rights.
During my student life at the university, I found that only safe food can reduce the rate of deaths caused by cancer. In every moment, I feel the absence of my father in my life as the journey till the end of my university education was not easy for me. I thanked my beloved mother for her struggle to support me.
For this reason, to combat the current situation of food adulteration, I decided to create awareness about food safety and established Conscious Consumers Society.
New Age Youth: In your experience so far, what food sectors are at most risk of being adulterated?
Palash Mahmud: More or less all kinds of foods available in our markets are to some extent adulterated. Even traces of adulteration are found in medicines which is a matter of serious concern.
Daily necessities like salt, oil, spices, butter, sugar and even baby food are adulterated these days which is posing a serious threat to the entire nation.
The food we get from livestock like fresh milk, eggs, fish, poultry and meat are adulterated; traces of high counts of antibiotic and heavy metals are found in these foods.
Use of insecticides and pesticides are unregulated. As a result, vegetables are comparatively high in harmful substances that are known to cause diseases like cancers.
New Age Youth: Recently, traces of antibiotics in milk have drawn a lot of criticism. How do you assess the situation?
Palash Mahmud: At least four government laboratories have find traces of antibiotics in raw and pasteurised milk. These tests also found presence of heavy metals in milk.
It would be unwise to think this situation derives suddenly. On the contrary, this practice is long prevailing. Only institutional identification of this truth was due. A foreign funded research brought this issue under light recently.
The authorities, as their first reaction, denied all allegations. Culture of denial is the exact reason why such practices are so deeply rooted in our society. The same discussion should be started about not only milk but also all kinds of food. Because consuming antibiotics with milk should have the same effect on health as consuming it with farm fishes.
These heavy metals of antibiotics are not mixed directly with the products rather these harmful substances are used to make animal food, medicinal purpose and fatten the animals. In many cases, these antibiotics and heavy metals are used over prescribed level.
These harmful substances are ultimately finding their way to human bodies through fish, meat, milk and other food item. This is such an overwhelming phenomenon that it should be declared as national crisis or epidemic.
New Age Youth: How important is collective social consciousness and initiatives in battling food adulteration?
Palash Mahmud: Millions of people are involved in food production, processing and marketing. With the help of this massive manpower, food adulteration cycle is created within the regular food cycle.
It is not possible to bring such huge population under justice at once. There are also lacking of skills and training for this workforce. As a result, creating awareness about food adulteration is of utmost importance.
Initiatives should be taken by the educated segment of the society to create awareness among people. This could eventually make people refrain from adulterating food because it harms everyone as well as the next generation.
In order to create awareness, CCS has targeted university students to make them understand about the serious aftermaths of food adulteration. Consumer Youth Bangladesh is the youth wing of CCS of which I am the president. Currently we are working with 25 universities covering over 8000 students.
These students will go on to lead the society in a few years time so we think they are our best shots at bringing a sustainable change in the society regarding the food sector.
New Age Youth: What are the main causes of food adulteration? Is it lack of governance, availability of chemicals or lack of awareness?
Palash Mahmud: I think there are four major reasons of food adulteration. The first is greed; the second is ineffective regulatory bodies; the third is insufficient training, knowledge and technology and the forth reason for food adulteration is lack of awareness.
Mixing two litres of water in five litres of milk would bring more profit — a sign of greed. Following this, many food products are not made with right amount or quality of ingredients, for more profits, resulting in adulterated food.
Huge numbers of marginalised people are involved in the food production and marketing industry with little to no knowledge and training about food safety, proper quality assurance and storage. Many people use formalin because they do not know any alternative to it for storing food. This can be done with minimal expense and in comparatively easy method.
To increase the profit, tannery wastes are used in poultry feed. Our failure here is that we could not provide proper information and training about producing poultry feed using organic and natural resources. As a result, heavy metals are finding its way to our bodies.
New Age Youth: Could you share some of your experiences while working against food adulteration?
Palash Mahmud: I have experienced moral support of a lot of people against food adulteration. Our seminars and workshops in universities have attracted a lot of young crowd — which is a very positive sign. Even university teachers offered their hands in our initiatives.
Showing the price of products is compulsory which many shop owners do not know. We have supplied product price lists to many university shops. This helps to combat over-pricing of products.
Identification of adulterated food is the primary challenge in Bangladesh. This, on the one hand, requires proper funding and, on the other hand, there are not many well equipped laboratories to carry out such tests. Only a handful of government organisations are working against food adulteration with very limited funding. If we can overcome this challenge, war against food adulteration could gain pace.
I have met a number of officials from Directorate of National Consumer Right Protection and food safety department who are sincere about food safety. As they believe in a positive change, experience of working with them was great. Many of them face same problems as we do.
There are a lot of cases where who submits a complaint has to face obstacles. Even, I was about to lost a job after I lodged a complaint with consumer rights authority.
After I filed a writ in the High Court considering 52 daily products, a number of well wishers showed their concerns for me. However, personally, I am not scared at all. It gives me immense pleasure to stand for the ordinary public on such a serious issue.
New Age Youth: How can your work support sustainable development goals?
Palash Mahmud: Among the seventeen goals of sustainable development by the United Nations, public health is the third. However, if this sector faces severe crisis, other goals might not be attained. For example, if a member of a family is affected by cancer, that family could go bankrupt to carry on the expensive treatments hampering the first goal. This could also hamper the studies of students of that family due to financial crisis.
No research has been done so far in our country revealing the real effects of adulterated food on public health. Currently, there are three million cancer patients in Bangladesh and a further 4 lakhs are added every year. More than two and half crore people are suffering from kidney diseases; the number is four crore for liver patients.
Nearly half the population of the country is suffering in these three diseases — a major reason behind such high numbers is adulterated food. With such numbers of people affected by food adulteration, SGD cannot be attained.
Our work is addressing this loophole and trying to create awareness among people against food adulteration. More awareness and consciousness means less food adulteration which will help to attain the SGD goals.
New Age Youth: What are your future plans?
Palash Mahmud: Right now I do not have any grand plans other than making the youth aware about adverse effects of food adulteration. We want to bring an overall social change.
To make our initiative effective we would like to engage at least 100 educational institutes with us which will cover more than 20,000 students. We also have plans to work in district and thana level eventually.
Overtaking such massive task needs a lot of money that we do not have. As a result, we are also focusing on collecting funds to smoothly run our operations.
Nahid Riyasad is a member of the New Age Youth team.