One and a half years into its launch, the FBCCI's much-applauded initiative to make kitchen markets formalin-free has lost steam mainly due to lack of eagerness among market committees.
With support from banks, the Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FBCCI) supplied formalin detection kits to 11 kitchen markets in the capital in September 2012, and declared those formalin-free.
Though it is obligatory to test for formalin in fish every day, at least four of the 11 markets don't do so. The rest run tests only two to four times a month because of slack monitoring by market committees.
The four markets are Mohammadpur's Town Hall Market, Shantinagar Bazar, Mohakhali kitchen market and Kaptan Bazar, The Daily Star learnt from visits to these markets.
The FBCCI has sent letters to the market committees of Town Hall and Mohakhali kitchen markets, and asked them to return the kits as those were not being used.
However, members of several market committees claimed that they were unable to run tests for unavailability of sensor refills for formalin detection machines that need refills every six months.
Most of the 11 markets have not changed sensor refills though their validity expired several months back.
The use of formalin in food goes unchecked as the kits are hardly used in those markets, mainly due to lack of monitoring by the FBCCI and absence of strict laws, according to industry insiders.
On May 25, a mobile court detected formalin levels of up to 0.60 parts per million (ppm) in each fish at Town Hall Market whereas the acceptable limit is 0.01 ppm, according to reports.
On condition of anonymity, a vegetable vendor at DCC-North kitchen market at Gulshan-2 said the market's inspection team rarely checks formalin levels.
Another vegetable seller said formalin is used in vegetables, including tomato and cucumber, which are out of season. “We buy formalin-soaked vegetables from wholesale markets.”
Almost all food items are adulterated these days -- vegetable, milk, drinks, sweetmeat, ice-cream and spices -- and health hazards seem inevitable for consumers. Consumption of such food may lead to cancer, neurological and reproductive problems, and kidney and liver failure.
The government drives against food adulteration are not effective enough, said Humayun Kabir Bhuiyan, general secretary of Consumers Association of Bangladesh.
Most markets lost interests in using formalin detection kits due to “high costs” of refills for the machines, claimed Mohammad Imam Hossain, general secretary of Aminbagh Cooperative Market Society, the market committee at Shantinagar Bazar. It requires at least Tk 5,000 to clean the kits every six months, he said.
The other markets declared formalin-free after September 2012 are Malibagh Kitchen Market, Mirpur's Shah Ali Bazar, Uttara Cooperative Market, Banani kitchen market, Badamtoli fruits market, and New Market's Banalata Bazar.
Formalin is now imported by the private sector for industrial use on prior permission from the commerce ministry.
According to data of the National Board of Revenue, formalin imports declined by 23.8 percent to 205 tonnes in fiscal 2011-12 compared to the previous fiscal year's.
FBCCI Vice President Md Helal Uddin, the main architect of the project “Formalin and poisonous carbide-free ideal market”, said the initiative faltered over the last one year.
With tough laws, Bangladesh has been able to reduce use of acid in criminal activities. Similarly, the country can tackle use of formalin in food. And for that to happen, the Formalin Control Act 2013 should be enacted immediately, said Helal.
The commerce ministry has already prepared the draft which now sits with the law ministry for more than eight months, he added. “It is unclear why the law ministry is delaying the vetting of such an important act.”
At a seminar in April, Law Minister Anisul Huq hoped parliament would pass the act by June and suggested lifetime imprisonment for those using formalin in food.
These culprits are endangering people's health and deserve the highest punishment, Huq said at a discussion organised by the FBCCI recently.
The country now has no specific law for punishing those using formalin in food.
Huq also proposed trying food adulteration cases under the Special Powers Act.