Food safety drive in Bangladesh falters as big violators go scot-free

Emran Hossain | Published: 02:27, Jan 24,2020 | Updated: 21:18, Jan 24,2020

 
 

A BSTI mobile court destroys spurious powdered milk during a recent drive in Dhaka. — New Age photo

The safe food campaign has come to a halt as government agencies responsible for taking the campaign ahead appeared to have sided with dishonest businessmen.

Fate of many major food standards related cases filed last year by different government agencies appears doomed with wilful destruction of evidences by them.

Even the High Court’s initiative to prevent the marketing of contaminated pasteurised milk has been put on the back burner with the government smelling a conspiracy against the local milk industry, which it felt was active behind the move.

All the 14 local pasteurised milk brands accused of marketing cow milk contaminated with banned antibiotics and excessive heavy metals continued their businesses without having to face a trial.

Independent researchers are afraid of disclosing their findings of dangerous adulteration and contamination in foods and prefer to keep it a secret even after being published in international journals.

‘Consumers fate is sealed when the protector turns predator,’ Consumers Association of Bangladesh president Ghulam Rahman told New Age.  

He said that government agencies’ priority to promote businesses instead of protecting consumers’ interest is evident in almost all their moves.

‘Laws are there to protect consumers. But there is nobody to implement those,’ said Ghulam Rahman.

In its latest press conference in the 2nd week of January the CAB demanded that a separate ministry be formed to look into consumer rights.

The existing public ministries and offices are all concerned with protecting industrialists and businesses and there is nobody to listen to consumers’ plights, the CAB chief said.

The safe food campaign began four years ago when Bangladesh Food Safety Authority came into being, three years later the food safety law was formulated.

The campaign has been very limited and based in the capital. Outside the capital the BFSA remained virtually absent.

The new law was applied in a very small number of cases only in the capital with BFSA’s food inspectors around the country remaining virtually inactive.

Food safety officers said that they were frustrated and suffered from a complete lack of motivation because of confusing leadership of their high-ups.

About 18 food safety inspectors based in Dhaka filed 166 cases under the safe food law since the safe food campaign began.

Most of the cases were filed against small businesses on charges of selling foods long after their shelf lives had expired.

Few cases were against big companies using deceptive advertisements for marketing their products.

One of the inspectors, who filed several cases against two big companies, was called to the office of a former minister last year and was asked to withdraw the cases.

At the minister’s office, the inspector found the accused relaxingly loitering around. The inspector said that he was humiliated before them with questions like who gave him the authority to file such cases.

‘Going against businesses in the country means taking a lot of professional troubles and risking life even,’ said an inspector requesting anonymity.

‘You might even lose your job or never get your hope of promotion realised,’ he said.

The inspector did not withdraw the cases but has lived in fear ever since.

The legal proceedings of the cases he had filed were however stayed anyway through the High Court.

‘Influential ruling party lawmakers, lawyers by profession, appeared on behalf of the accused businessmen to prove the government wrong,’ said the inspector.

On Monday, a Dhaka court flew into a rage during the trial of a case filed against Quasem Food Products for manufacturing substandard potato chips.

Quasem Food Products is one of the 61 companies accused of manufacturing 73 uneatable food items last year.

The court said that that Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institution destroyed all evidences relating to the prosecution of all the 61 companies.

The BSTI also gave false information to the government prosecutor to save the companies and in some cases framed innocent grocers or shopkeepers to let the real culprits go, said the court.

The BSTI told the court during the hearing that they do not preserve evidence  more than 72 hours.

‘Your decision to destroy evidence in 72 hours reveals your predetermination to let the culprits go,’ the food court judge special metropolitan magistrate Mehedi Pavel Sweet told the BSTI.

The court said that it was flooded with allegations from consumers against government agencies such as the BSTI.

‘Your performance is very poor. You better serve people better,’ the judge said.

The BSTI took a lot of flak last year when it found 73 food items not conforming to its standards but did not take any action against them.

The indifference of the national standards enforcing institution sparked a public outcry and resulted in a public litigation seeking direction from the High Court to protect consumers.

The High Court expressed its disappointment with BSTI’s performance and had asked it to regularly update the court on its activities.

BSTI director general Muazzem Hossain told New Age that they did not have enough space to preserve evidence of substandard foods.

‘It is also difficult to protect evidence of perishable foods,’ said Muazzem, who hastened to add that they worked under many limitations and that they also had a limited jurisdiction.

According to the law, Muazzem said, only those products needing mandatory certification from us is under our control.

At the moment only 181 products, including 72 food items, need to have BSTI license to be sold in the market.

The jurisdiction represents less than 5 per cent of packaged food industry in Bangladesh.

About 95 per cent of businesses producing foods in the country do not need standards certification to run their businesses.

Many of the businesses however regularly use fake BSTI certification and rarely get punished because of it.

Laboratory activities of the BSTI are mainly limited to testing samples commercially for private businesses.

BSTI’s poor market monitoring gives businesses the golden opportunity to flood the market with substandard products.

The samples that it tests as part of regular market monitoring are often supplied by their producers. The BSTI collects samples on its own sometimes.

When a sample fails to pass the test, its producer always gets a second chance to send a second sample in for test, which most of the time meets the full standards compliance, said BSTI officers.

The producers of the substandard or adulterated foods rarely get their licenses cancelled irrespective of the seriousness of their crime.

Of the 73 food items found substandard last year some were contaminated with excessive lead, but the BSTI served merely show cause notices on their producers and did not take any action against them.

‘We are not here to hurt businesses. We have to act by the law,’ said Muazzem.

The country’s other food laboratories were not operating properly either, often because of government’s reluctance in using them effectively.

The food testing laboratory established to monitor qualities of food sold in both south and north city corporations in Dhaka remained out of operation for the last two years.

The food testing laboratory did not test a single sample in 2018 and 2019 because it did not have an analyst.

In 2017 the laboratory had tested 501 food samples while 569 samples were tested the year before.

Bangladesh Council of Scientific and Industrial Research also remain busy with commercial tests for private businesses. Reports of its researches are rarely made public.

‘There is no denying the fact that our laboratories are not enough to take the safe food campaign ahead,’ said BFSA member Monzur Morshed Ahmed.

He said that food testing laboratories needed a lot of improvements and they did not even have standards for testing many food products sold in the market.

‘It will need time to improve laboratory services,’ he said.

The laboratory of the Institute of Public Health is the only one who publishes yearly report on its market monitoring through press conference.

Last year the IPH faced scathing criticism from government food regulators after it revealed that raw cow milk, fodder and other food items were contaminated with banned antibiotics, excessive heavy metals and other impurities.

The BFSA and the BSTI were quick to question IPH’s methodologies of tests and cast their doubts about the IPH having the capacity to run proper tests.

Last year the BFSA hit headlines several times for withholding names of powder milk importers even after detecting heavy metals in them.

The BFSA did not ban the milk brands. Neither did it withdraw them from the market, despite being aware of the fact that the children, the elderly and the sick people were consuming them.

Milk ranks among the food items considered most dangerous for consumption.

The BFSA found gaping leaks along milk value chains but did very little to improve the situation.

For instance, cold chain is not maintained in supplying pasteurised milk by companies to retailers. Bacterial growth starts in pasteurised milk in half an hour of its production if the cold chain is not maintained.

The cold chain is preserving pasteurised milk under 4 C until it is consumed.

But, the BFSA so far failed to force companies to maintain cold chain.

In another desperate attempt to serve businessmen the BFSA overstepped the law when it said last year that calcium carbide could be applied for ripening mangoes artificially.

Use of calcium carbide is legally prohibited in Bangladesh.

After chromium presence in poultry meat was reported on the media last year, the BFSA dismissed the reports saying chromium gets destroyed by cooking, which is not true.

The BFSA even conducted researches justifying illegal practices among businesses.

For instance, a BFSA investigation concluded in 2018 that miniket rice was cultivated in Bangladesh, contradicting the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute.

According to the BRRI, miniket is over-polished BRRI-29, a thick but popular rice grown in Bangladesh.

Businessmen claim Miniket to be a different variety of rice and its price is higher than regular BRRI-29 rice.

Even the High Court noticed the visible favouritism shown by the BFSA and the BSTI towards businesses, even after they faltered in all counts to maintain food standard.

At a hearing last year, the High Court reprimanded the BSTI officials for sitting idle in air conditioned offices wasting public money.

It scolded the BFSA officials at another hearing saying ‘are you scared of the big businesses?’ ‘You better quit, go home and cook food,’ the court told the BFSA officials.

Many BSTI employees spearheaded social media campaign supporting campaign of private businesses that safe food campaign was a pretext to destroy home grown food business.

Even the prime minister said that she believed there was a conspiracy going on against local milk companies.

Soon after the PM’s remark came, the jurisdiction of the High Court bench, whichin a suomotoorder asked the production of pasteurised milk by 14 companies to stop last year, was curtailed.

The bench no longer has the power to issue suomoto and now hears cases not related to food standards.

Even independent researchers and safe food campaigners became the victims of smear campaigns by government officers and businesses throughout last year.

After a group of Dhaka University teachers revealed last year that many products certified by the BSTI do not conform to the national standards, the BSTI employees joined the campaigns calling the researchers names and identifying them as agents of foreign companies.

The team of researchers were led by Dhaka University’s pharmacy department teacher professor ABM Faroque.

Even Faroque’s own department was quick to notify public in a rare statement that the department had nothing to do with the research.

A file photo shows that BSTI mobile court staff dumps adulterated chocolates after confiscating those during a drive. — New Age photo

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