Pandemic gives food frauds a free rein in Bangladesh

Emran Hossain | Published: 23:41, Jan 31,2021 | Updated: 00:20, Feb 01,2021


The activities of Bangladesh Food Safety Authority have largely been limited to deskbound tasks after the coronavirus crisis struck Bangladesh nearly a year ago in March 2020.

In the past 11 months, the national food regulator did not collect a single sample of food to run a test which is indicative of discontinuation in their regular monitoring activities.

As the country is set to observe National Food Safety Day on February 2, experts believe that because of lax monitoring in the past nine months the food adulteration crisis worsened.  

Experts viewed the absence of monitoring activities as a sign of the authority’s negligence at a time when people are in need of safe food more than ever before in order to boost immunity to fight the coronavirus infection.

‘The health crisis impacted our activities but we are trying to overcome it,’ BFSA director Sahadev Chandra Saha told New Age, adding that no sample was tested and cases filed against food frauds since March 2020. Experts view regular laboratory test essential for the ongoing safe food campaign for harmful chemicals, food additives and other ingredients are regularly used in food, often repeatedly by the same producer. One month before the COVID-19 crisis emerged, prime minister Sheikh Hasina likened the mixing of harmful ingredients into food to an act of corruption, promising to build state-of-the art testing facilities across Bangladesh to protect people’s health.

Food authority member Manzur Morshed Ahmed, however, claimed that their activities would rapidly pick up in the next three months as newly appointed 97 employees joined their offices across Bangladesh.

‘Now we have food safety officers in every district and they are working very hard,’ said Manzur Morshed.

After their onboarding in early August 2020, the newly appointed food analyst, scientific officers, researchers and food safety officers were given a 45-day training before they were sent to their stations.

New Age talked to four of them and came to learn that they were still confused about the scope of work.

Most of the newly-rented district-level offices are yet to receive chairs, tables and personal computers, printers and other necessary facilities.

‘We understand we have to work under some limitations but a minimum requirement must be fulfilled,’ said a food safety officer requesting anonymity for he is not supposed to talk to the media.

Ever since its launch on February 2, 2015, the BFSA repeatedly said that the shortage of manpower was  holding them back from full operation and it took over five years for the national regulator to get its first food analyst.

The newly appointed food analyst and researchers however are uncertain about using their skills anytime soon for a full-fledged food testing laboratory was still a dream.

The national food regulator has been conducting a very limited number of tests at laboratories owned by other government institutions before the emergence of COVID-19.

‘It once again indicates the weakness in the system when a government institution cannot become fully operational even in six years,’ said Consumers Association of Bangladesh president Ghulam Rahman.

He pointed out that formulating a law was meaningless without having a proper plan of action for its enforcement.

He said that the time came to review the BFSA’s activities to assess the changes necessary to transform it into an effective organisation.

Since its establishment, the BFSA said that it was busy formulating necessary regulations and building other administrative frameworks in the first few years for which they did not need a huge manpower.

But food frauds continued to get away with crimes as severe as falsely attributing medicinal qualities to their foods by way of advertisements in the absence of regulations.

The BFSA even could not complete forming all the technical committees required under the Safe Food Act 2013. The committees that were formed are few in number and they also do not meet regularly.

The BFSA also failed to determine a safe limit on the use of food additives and other chemicals in processed food.

‘BFSA must realise that they are providing an emergency service that cannot discontinue under any circumstances,’ said Bangladesh Food Safety Network member Farida Akhter.

He said that the COVID-19 outbreak increased the demand for processed food and with the rise of online delivery the food supply chain entered an uncontrolled phase as suppliers also often buy the food from dubious sources.

‘The BFSA should have been able to closely monitor the rise of this new supply chain, making adjustments where required to keep food safe,’ she said.

But the BFSA has no idea about it just like other food supply chains where gaping leaks regularly leads to widespread contamination of food, experts said.

The country abounds with evidence of food adulteration as banned and harmful chemicals are being used in foods, including essential popular foods such as Biriyani and beef.

Experts said that the issue of contamination is likely to persist as good agricultural and aquaculture practices are still a far cry.

The agricultural input companies are continuously luring farmers into using excessive agricultural inputs.

Unsafe food has been a concern for decades in this part of the world, especially after 1969, when the first law for keeping food safe was formulated, and the situation only worsened when factories were built and they started releasing their waste directly into the environment, especially into open water bodies.

A number of government ministries and departments, including Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institution, have separate laws relating to food safety but their enforcement is lax as well.

Two months before the coronavirus crisis emerged, a pure food court in January found that the BSTI had destroyed evidence relating to the prosecution of 61 companies accused of marketing 73 uneatable packaged food items the year before.

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