A cross-section of people share their views about food safety with New Age staff correspondents
Shahin Akhter and Rashad Ahamad
Use of legal and illegal chemicals can affect vegetables, crops and plants from their harvesting to preservation.
During harvest, if farmers in Bangladesh use excessive amount of legal chemical along with illegal ones, these enter our food cycle. Extra chemicals mixed up with water and stay there.
Growth hormones are being used in most of the fruits and the vegetables in Bangladesh to grow these in a very short time. Yes, fruits are growing fast but nutrition level in these fruits has decreased following inclusion of growth hormone.
These growth hormones are harmful for bodies and these are responsible for obesity.
As every organ in human body is synchronised, when one body part becomes affected by anything, other body parts are also affected.
In the post-harvest period, artificial ripening agents like calcium carbide are used to ripe fruits. Moreover these agents are not fully pure as these have 60 to 70 per cent impurities which are available in local markets.
At this stage, people also use syrups and colours in fruits and vegetables to enhance the taste and the colour, which is not acceptable at all. No extra colour or syrup can be used in any fruit or vegetable anyhow.
During harvesting and post-harvesting periods, use of extra and illegal chemicals reduces nutrition level in fruits and vegetables and increases the level of acidity by ripening raw fruits.
After ripening, different legal chemicals like formalin and illegal chemicals are used in fruits and vegetables to preserve them for a longer period. Another reason for using these chemicals is that these are very cheap.
People, who consume these, are also unaware of the negative impacts of the illegal and harmful chemicals in fruits and vegetables.
In cases of poultry foods and cattle, growth hormone is also being used to grow these animals within a very short time.
Consumption of heavy metals like sulphur, phosphorus and even arsenic can cause diseases like diarrhoea, skin diseases and even cancers.
Any kind of impurity in foods can at first attack kidney of human body. Kidney works as a filter in human body. High amount of impurity can damage the working ability of kidney and then it can create a complex situation.
As the extra and harmful chemicals stay in food cycle, these affect the growth of human body also.
People are becoming more aware about safe food in recent years following media reports and action of the government. Illegal chemicals are becoming rare in local markets.
However, the government have to work more to stop this widespread ill practice.
At first, the government should improve the preservation facilities for perishable items, which is a challenge not only in Bangladesh but also all over the world.
It takes about eight to 10 days in our country to send a fruit from the farmers to the customers. If the preservation system has been improved, the consumers will get chemical-free fruits and vegetables.
Then the authorities have to improve the existing transportation facilities to take fruits, crops and vegetables from the farmers to the consumers before these items perish.
Not only during Edi-ul-Adha but also round the year the authorities should check the health of cattle to detect growth hormone.
Many types of chemicals are used in our daily foods. Of them, formalin is being used to prevent decay, carbide to ripen fruits hurriedly and insect killers to protect vegetables, plants and crops.
These chemicals are necessary but these should be used on a limited scale. And these limits vary in every vegetable, crop and plant. If the limits are crossed, these chemicals become harmful for our bodies.
When people eat these foods treated with chemicals – all these go to our stomach at first. In stomach these foods can cause high acidity and gastritis. Then finally these foods can cause ulcer. As immediate effects, these foods can cause vomiting and diarrhoea.
If people consume high level of formalin for a long period, it affects the function of liver, pancreas and women’s fallopian tube.
Formalin also cases bronchitis and then tuberculosis and pneumonia.
Excessive level of formalin even causes death at any time.
Excessive use of formalin and carbide also cause different skin diseases from rash to blister.
Chemicals in foods affect every person from children to elderly persons. Pregnant women are the most vulnerable if they consume foods with poisonous chemicals. Unborn babies even can die of negative impacts of these chemicals.
Children and elderly people are also in high risk zone as immunity power in them is low.
At different times, many people died after consuming foods like tomato and litchi.
There should be a survey to find out the level of adulteration in the foods we consume.
People come to us with various ailments but adulteration in food is behind most of these cases. Surveys can determine the level of adulteration in foods that leads to their illness.
People are not aware about unsafe foods as they have no times for looking into this issue even when drives against adulterated foods are being covered by the media.
First of all have to be aware of unsafe foods and uses of harmful level of chemicals in foods. If people refuse to eat these foods, the ill practice of using poisonous level of chemical will be stopped for good.
And the government has to enforce strict laws against the people who use harmful chemicals in foods. Compensation is not the solution. If an unborn child dies, how can it be compensated? Trade licences of the responsible persons have to be cancelled as example.
Lastly, public awareness and strict laws together can stop this menace.
Food adulteration is a national problem in Bangladesh. We had acute crisis of legal support but now we have eight laws and seven rules regarding safe food. We waste a huge time to do it. Whatever, the situation started to improve gradually.
Once textile colours had very commonly used for colouring food items. It is dangerous for health. But now 95 per cent producers do not use textile colour in food as government agencies are active.
We nine inspectors under Dhaka South City Corporation have filed 125 cases including 107 cases after sample testing, 12 cases for fake levelling and four cases we have filed against institutions for unhealthy food production since 2016.
The court imposed Tk 2,59,60,000 in fines and jailed for a year in three cases.
Punishment and fines are not everything to ensure safe food. We need awareness among the customer first. They should buy packet food items being careful about the expired date and BSTI approval.
In case of fruits, they should buy domestically produced fruit items during their season to avoid adulteration. People prefer sweet items more when they visit relatives’ houses. Reality is sweet or cake items are more dangerous. People should buy domestic fruits. You know I have written a book named Positive Bangladesh: Safe Food Laws and Relevant Discussion.
Another important thing is washing fruits for 15 minutes before consumption.
Common problem we found in restaurants is that there is no soap for washing workers’ hands, dustbins are kept open and freezing food in an unhealthy manner.
Sometimes we have found that workers’ sweat drops into food items. They process food in an unhealthy place.
I believe that the government should give priority to child food items because children are more vulnerable and they are the future of the nation.
People of the country expend crores of taka very years for treating their diseases.
Most of the diseases are due to food adulteration and poisoning. So people should be careful about buying anything. They should always give priority to quality not price.
Bangladesh Food Safety Authority has appointed 728 food inspectors to enhance drive against food adulteration.
I would like to request the authorities to keep the inspectors out of political influence, corruption, nepotism and I also request the government to upgrade their post designation.
I request the government to install a lab in each district.
Restaurant or factory owner should employ educated people with handsome salary in their production house and make them aware about food safety before they start working.
I want to repeat that sustainable solution to this severe crisis is not easy. It is possible but challenging.
When everyone will realise the danger of food adulteration, only then Bangladesh will be a food adulteration-free country.
I would like to request Bangladesh Food Safety Authority and Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institution for working together for getting better result.
There are many food inspectors not they are not courageous enough to take action against the perpetrators as in many cases they are the most powerful. I request the government to ensure its support for the inspector.
Customers sometime prefer to eat tasty food than the healthy ones. For example grilled chicken is not healthy but tasty.
Restaurant owners supply grilled chicken as customers love it. What I want to say is that for healthy and hygienic foods, restaurant owner as well as the customer have their own responsibility.
You will get a common impression among people about restaurant that restaurants supply unhealthy foods. Practically it is wrong. Just think how many people daily eat in restaurants. There are 60,000 restaurants across the country and how many people eat there, you guess.
Yes, once we had no standard and mechanism to test food standard. That time there were some common allegations about some roadside restaurants.
Even the government agencies fined and destroyed a huge amount of mangoes based on wrong idea.
There is still another misconception in the market that fertiliser is used in puffed rice. People also say engine oil is used in chanachur. Actually these are all wrong ideas. Scientifically, there is no scope to do.
Some customers want quality food but don’t agree to pay that much. So they eat from roadside restaurants and blame all for it.
People commonly blame restaurants for supply rotten food to the customer. Some restaurants may do it, but they are not businessmen.
Does a customer need a machine to find out which food is rotten? Never, the customers easily understand the taste and quality of food. If any restaurant does it, the customer will never go to the restaurant and tell others not to go there.
Once we had a crisis of law and rules alongside the crisis of manpower to monitor the restaurant, but the problem is over.
Now, Bangladesh Food Safety Authority, City Corporation and BSTI are working in this regard. I hope people’s misconception will go within a few years.
We want to change this for our own interest. I would like to request the government to ensure that all the restaurants across the country are members of Bangladesh Restaurant Owners Association. If the restaurants are our members, we can take action against them.
Recently, Bangladesh Restaurant Owners Association and Bangladesh Food Safety Authority jointly conducted survey on 170 restaurants in the capital’s official area including Gulistan, Motijheel and Palton in April 2017.
We have marked the restaurants out of 100 based on 27 criteria of safe food set by BFSA. If any restaurant gets 80 or more marks, it is called green and for 50-79 marks a restaurant is marked yellow and for marks under 50 a restaurant is marked orange.
We have found 27 restaurants with green marks.
Some restaurants get orange marks and we warn them to upgrade their safety standard soon or would face closure.
I think along with restaurant owners, weather and raw and food ingredient supplies also responsible for food adulteration.
House arrangement is one of the barriers for safe food as during construction of a building none ever thought that it would be used as a restaurant.
Sometimes we face acute gas crisis and electricity crisis which also create risk factors. Just think about hours-long load shedding in a restaurant where employees need to open the refrigerators frequently.
I believe that safe food is a challenge and all the stakeholders have their respective responsibility. Only restaurant cannot ensure safe food for all.
Though food adulteration is one of the most common issues in our daily life, it is very difficult for a consumer to prove this irregularity.
In my childhood I used to check presence of iodine in salt using lemon. But now we do not have any magic machine to check adulteration in foods.
So even if we can understand that we are eating unsafe food, what can we do? If we become sick by eating adulterated foods and go to hospital, even then there is no way we can understand that the food was unsafe.
Actually adulteration in foods is such a reality which is everywhere but there is no way for common people to identify it.
It is a matter of grave concern that due to adulterated foods different diseases are increasing in recent years.
In that case what should a common consumer do? There is one way — we can stop purchasing foods from outside. But it is not possible in true sense. Maybe we can understand that the semai (a traditional sweet food item) we are consuming is being adulterated. We can see many news reports on these. But we are being compelled to eat this following lack of alternatives.
And for the low income group of people, the reality is harsher as they have no alternatives at all but to eat the most adulterated foods daily.
The government is the most important factor in preventing adulteration of foods. Directorate General of Health Services and Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institution are the key players in this regard.
The government has to understand that it is its duty to ensure sound health for the public.
The administration can also play a vital role against unsafe foods. We can see some seasonal drives conducted by administration during Eid-ul-Fitr. Media also focuses on this issue at that time.
As a result, the dishonest businesspeople, who are responsible for adulteration in foods, stay out of touch of legal action other times of year.
So there should be regular drives and strict actions against these people throughout the year. These people also should be punished as soon as possible. The authorities have to take zero tolerance policy against them.
The government must also be attentive to invent low-cost technology to identify adulteration in foods. It will also be helpful for the common people while the dishonest businesspeople will be cautious to ensure food safety also.
But first of all, we the consumers have to be more aware about adulterated foods. We have to boycott adulterated foods as much as possible and create public awareness of the dire consequences of unsafe foods.
Human beings need food for living but if the food becomes unsafe, human life also turns unsafe. Availability of safe food is our human right and at the same times our basic right. No animal except human being adulterate their food.
I continue drives against food adulteration not only as a government officer but also as a citizen of the country. As a citizen, everyone has the right to get safe food and everyone should stand against its contamination.
The trend of food adulteration is still prevailing in many sectors despite various types of initiatives. I think food adulteration has decreased to some extent. For example fruits items are now safer than what they were previously.
Processed foods are comparatively unsafe as inedible colour is being used in them even after strong monitoring. We have failed to stop use of excessive pesticide in crop field.
In restaurants, I have found acute crisis of trained manpower and lack of awareness. Just think who is a restaurant owner in Dhaka? They have no experience in food processing or preserving.
But suddenly they engage in the business. The government should train up both the restaurant owners as well as the workers. I have found huge adulteration in restaurant for their lack of awareness. None even know how to preserve food and store green vegetables.
I found two types of problems in baby food items particularly in powdered milk. Importers bring date-expired powder and pack them as having one year’s validity. It is false.
Sometimes they import milk with their date already expired and I have found tonnes of date-expired chocolate being imported.
We have adequate laws and rules to prevent all types of food adulteration. But the problem is at the level of implementation. All sectors have their own responsibilities to check the serious crime. We should ensure strong monitoring.
Customers also have a vital responsibility. They should pick natural items. Some customers want all the banana would rip at a time which is absolutely impossible. To meet such customers’ demand, traders use chemical so that all banana ripe simultaneously.