Ensuring safe food for all still remains a major challenge in Bangladesh as policymakers struggle to make a systematic intervention to keep food safe from farm to fork.
The central regulatory body, Bangladesh Food Safety Authority, established almost four years ago is far from being effective for lack of technical expertise and adequate manpower.
Its activities are centred in cities, mainly in the capital Dhaka, and focused on awareness campaigns.
Even the campaigns are not free from controversies and accused of favouring businessmen rather than furthering the interests of the safe food campaign.
Bangladesh Food Safety Authority is replete with evidence that foods are largely unsafe for consumption in the country.
Between July 2017 and September 2018 mobile courts conducted at district level realised Tk 2.7 crore in fines from 4,255 people for producing or selling unsafe food, showed data compiled by the Authority.
In Dhaka, the Authority-conducted mobile courts realised Tk 84 lakh in three months from October in fines from businesspeople violating the food safety law.
Mobile court activities shed light on a part of the food sector as the authorities resort to it in a symbolic action against malpractices undermining public interests.
The spirit of the mobile court is to motivate businesses to adopt corrective measures rather than punishing them.
‘We punish only those putting public health at grave risk,’ says BFSA executive magistrate Tusher Ahmed.
‘We are in favour of giving a chance to improve,’ Tusher argues.
Still there is always someone to be fined or punished for businesspeople in the country engage in serious violation of food safety law every now and then, both knowingly and unknowingly.
Studies have revealed widespread contamination in and adulteration of a wide range of foods from powdered baby milk to drinking water.
Executive magistrates often come across imported food bulks being sold long after their expiry.
Agricultural products are contaminated with high pesticide and antibiotic residues while gaping leaks across value chains expose them to widespread microbial contamination.
Pigments used in dyeing 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 taste crispy. Industrial grade ethephon and carbide were used for ripening fruits, especially mangoes.
Restaurants hardly followed hygiene codes while foods were prepared there next to open toilets. And many of the ingredients in the foods had gone stale.
Food safety and health experts saw a link between the rising trends in non-communicable diseases and consumption of substandard and unsafe foods.
They warned of a catastrophic health consequences if the situation did not improve immediately.
‘We are up to a massive task,’ says Bangladesh Food Safety Authority chairman Mohammad Mahfuzul Hoque.
‘The situation cannot be improved overnight but we are working on it,’ he says.
Mhafuz says that only 16 government officers are working to fix a sector involving a community of about 2.5 million businesspeople.
‘We are up to an uphill task,’ he mentions.
The Authority recently banned import of energy drinks and also fixed the maximum residue limit for application of caffeine in them. For producing a litre of soft drink, producers cannot apply more than 140 mg of caffeine.
‘The marketing of imported energy drinks has completely been banned in Bangladesh considering their health impacts,’ says Mahfuz.
The rapidly expanding soft drink market is largely unregulated and growing into an even bigger serious health concern every day.
Researchers have found that preservatives and other additives applied in soft drinks often exceed permissible limits.
In 2015, following laboratory tests, Bangladesh Council of Scientific and Industrial Research found the presence of sodium benzoate used as preservatives in 10 fruit juices at levels between twice and 10 times more than permitted.
During the tests, the BCSIR also found that fruit juices sold in cans contained high concentration of heavy metal aluminium residues.
In 2013, Department of Narcotics Control officials were shocked to find that the presence of caffeine was in excess of the permissible limits in all the 57 energy drinks tested.
The minimum presence of caffeine in the tested brands was 200mg per litre.
The tests revealed 325mg of caffeine per litre in an imported energy drink, the highest.
The tests revealed the presence of alcohol in excess of the permissible level in some of the energy drink while some others contained sildenafil citrate, an ingredient used in Viagra.
Soft drinks companies need no certification from the Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institution to start the business, except for producing carbonated beverages.
Lately reports of cow milk being faked or microbial or heavy metal contamination in milk shocked people.
On January 25, BFSA revealed that it found lead present at levels higher than the permissible limit in six imported milk powder brands.
The milk powders in question, BFSA had told journalists while breaking the contamination news, contained lead ten to 15 times the permissible limit.
Dhaka Shishu hospital professor Dr Mohammad Hanif said if consumed lead residues would affect neurological and brain functioning, hamper bone developments, blood cell generation and damage kidney, liver and other organs as well.
Contamination in milk has been plaguing the people of the country for a long time now.
In 2008 eight brands of powdered milk imported from China, Denmark, Australia and New Zealand were found tainted with melamine residues.
In 2017 a Bangladesh Agricultural University study found heavy metal residues in cow milk.
In June this year, BFSA launched a probe into allegations that cow milk was being faked in districts at the heart of the country’s milk production.
Meats are no safe food either.
Indiscriminate use of antibiotics and steroids for treating poultry birds or livestock or fattening them has provided ingredients for a lot of food safety discussions.
Tests have found high concentration of antibiotics in poultry meat. Consumers are cheated after buying steroid-fattened beef.
Another major problem with poultry meat is aflatoxin contamination. Aflatoxin is a liver cancer causing food contaminant passing from the meat to humans if consumed.
A 2014 study found aflatoxin in blood samples taken from pregnant women in northern Bangladesh.
Even water sold as purified are not safe for drinking.
In May this year the Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institution revealed that water marketed in jar as purified was not so.
BSTI found that companies were selling piped water without treatment in jar and bacterial contamination was found in a majority of the samples collected from all over the capital during laboratory tests for three months since February.
The BSTI in the tested samples found presence of fecal coliform, Salmonella, E Coli and Shigella bacteria and Hepatitis A and E viruses.
A Bangladesh Agricultural Research Council study had found presence of E Coli in 98 per cent of samples collected from two dozen places across Dhaka.
Access to safe food for the underprivileged is not even in discussion till now. In Dhaka about 63 lakh people live in slums, according to Dhaka WASA estimates.
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.
Application of chemicals in ripening fruits has become an acknowledged health concern after a recent study by Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology revealed that ripening agents in use in Bangladesh were highly contaminated.
BFSA was caught off guard by the revelation as it came on the heels of a BFSA campaign that it was safe to use ethephon and carbide for ripening fruits.
Former Bangladesh Agricultural University food technology professor Burhan Uddin said that it took years for dedicated people to gain the highly technical knowledge of food safety.
‘It is good that we started talking about it,’ he said.
‘Now we need to work consistently on it,’ said Burhan.
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