The culprits behind formalin in foods are to be jailed for life and slapped with Tk 20 lakh fine under a law, the draft of which was approved by the cabinet yesterday.
The government move came following reports of rampant use of formalin in fish, milk, fruits and vegetables by a wide range of traders to increase the shelf life and fresh look of food items.
Both legal and health experts hailed the government's bid to enact a law to control the use and sale of formalin but stressed its implementation. There are hundreds of laws in the country but not many of them are enforced.
Two credible tests recently found that formalin is one of at least two dozen chemicals used by unscrupulous traders in food items, creating huge concern over public health. Controlling the abuse of formalin alone will not ensure safe food, they said.
Even if the law is enacted and enforced, there is no guarantee that the use of formalin will disappear.
The draft bill did not propose a ban on formalin imports. The law will make it mandatory for traders to have licences to import, stock, sell and market formalin, Cabinet Secretary M Musharraf Hossain Bhuiyan told reporters after a cabinet meeting at the secretariat.
Formalin, as reported in the media, is being sold openly under various names. A mobile court busted a makeshift chemical depot last week.
The draft did not make it clear how the government would contain the malpractice relating to the import of formalin.
The draft provides for maximum seven years' imprisonment or Tk 5 lakh fine or both in case of violation of the terms of formalin licence and stockpiling of formalin illegally at houses, offices, business establishments or in vehicles.
It also has a provision of maximum 10 years' imprisonment or Tk 20 lakh fine for possessing equipment for formalin production.
Police can arrest any offender without court permission if a case is filed under the act.
The commerce ministry had placed the draft act before the cabinet late last year after several meetings with the relevant ministries, scientists, experts and other stakeholders.
Cabinet Secretary Mosharraf Hossain Bhuiyan told journalists that the ongoing drive against the misuse of formalin would continue under the existing law until the new law comes into effect.
For immediate implementation, the authorities could use mobile court drives. Besides, formalin control committees could be formed in every district and upazila to supervise the act's enforcement, the secretary said.
Formalin is a solution of the gas formaldehyde, highly toxic to all animals. Ingestion of 30 millilitres of formalin has been reported to cause the death of adult humans. It is also very corrosive and its ingestion can cause severe injuries to the upper gastrointestinal tract, physicians said.
In 2011, the Department of Fisheries imported a digital kit Formaldehyde Meter Z-300, while the Bangladesh Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (BCSIR) developed another method to detect formalin in fish.
In 2012, the Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industries (FBCCI) imported and introduced the formalin detection kit in 11 city markets and declared the markets formalin-free.
Early in June, the Dhaka Metropolitan Police also started an anti-formalin drive in and around the capital to check formalin in seasonal fruits and destroyed tonnes of fruits, mainly mangoes and litchis.
However, Bangladesh Agricultural Research Council (BARC) observed that the imported kit was not fit for detecting formalin in food items. It was meant for detecting formaldehyde in air.
The cabinet approved the draft act amid panic among people over how safe the food they were eating was.
Rashid-E-Mahbub, chairman of the National Committee on Health Rights Movement, said the issue of food safety is a much bigger issue and controlling formalin use could only be a part.
He told The Daily Star that enforcement of the Food Safety Act through an independent and efficient authority could only improve food safety status. Dozens of chemicals were being used in the production and distribution of crops, vegetables, fruits, chickens and animals, he said.
Feed for the poultry, fodder for cows, goats have often been found with harmful substances, which eventually enter the food chain and human body. Even processed, frozen and imported food items contain various types of colours and preservatives, recent lab tests show, he said.
Prof Nilufar Nahar of Dhaka University chemistry department said the Food Safety Act had set acceptable levels of some chemicals or pesticides in food production and preservation process but formalin was such a toxic substance that there was no question of setting any acceptable level.
The way formalin had been used in various food items, it was crucial to have a separate act like the one on acid control, she told The Daily Star.
The cabinet secretary said the proposed act was likely to be placed before parliament this session for passage.
Yesterday, the cabinet also gave the final nod to “Bangladesh Oceanographic Research Institute Act-2014” to facilitate extraction of marine resources.