The government needs to clamp down on real culprits instead of chasing down petty traders in its drive against adulterated and contaminated food, experts and civil society members said yesterday.
Scattered initiatives against food contaminators will not help the government achieve its long term objective of safe food, they told a roundtable on “Harmful Chemicals in Food: Health Hazards.”
Use of chemicals in food has become a serious concern in recent times. They suggested a coordinated approach involving the relevant government departments to ensure safe food.
BSRM, a top steel maker of the country, and The Daily Star jointly organised the event at the Daily Star Centre in the capital.
“There is talk about food adulteration, but we see little action,” said Dr Tahmeed Ahmed, director at the Centre for Nutrition and Food Safety of ICDDR,B.
Presenting the keynote paper, he said the authorities concerned had to go to the source of the problem.
Listing numerous health problems from food adulterants and contaminants, Dr Tahmeed pointed out that the number of cancer patients in Bangladesh would increase to nearly 5 lakh in 2035 from 2,32,868 in 2012, according to a recent study.
The chemicals used in food items include formalin, calcium carbide, sodium cyclamate, colouring agents, dye, urea, DDT, aldrin, chlordane, heptachlor, melamine, burnt engine oil, hormone and sulphuric acid.
Studies have also found the presence of heavy metals, antibiotics and pesticides in foods. Also, there are major loopholes in hygiene practices that cause microbial growth in food.
Up to 60 percent of food samples tested by the Institute of Public Health were found contaminated and adulterated.
Adulterated foods have serious health impacts, which can cause diseases like cancer, kidney, liver and renal failures, memory loss, respiratory problems, infertility, kidney stone and damage to cardiac system, mentioned Dr Tahmeed.
The recent actions, he added, by the Dhaka Metropolitan Police and mobile courts had raised public awareness, but this was only a tiny part of what actually needed to be done.
He suggested conducting a well-designed study to know the extent of food adulteration and contamination, establishing a standard of food quality and maintaining it strictly.
Food and nutrition experts should also strongly monitor imported fruits and food items. “Before they enter Bangladesh, we have to make sure that they are not adulterated or contaminated.”
Prof Hamidul Huq of the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB) said business people were the key actors behind the vicious cycle of treating foods with chemicals.
“But police are going after the poor traders, seizing their mangoes and destroying them. By doing so, you are snatching their whole capital they borrow from microcredit organisations,” he noted.
“The producers and consumers are not responsible [for adulteration of foods]… We'll have to hit at the root of the problem."
The government, said the ULAB teacher, cannot escape its responsibility for ensuring safe food. “No progress would be made if we just limit ourselves to penalising the small traders or boycotting fruits.”
Mohiuddin Babar, a consultant of mobile phone operator Robi, said the use of chemicals in foods has widened because of industrialisation, scientific development and population growth.
Consumers' faith in the government agencies responsible for tackling adulteration has waned due to public perception of law enforcers' corruption, he added. In this connection, he cited an example: there were more consumers in a city restaurant that was punished recently for food adulteration.
Therefore, strong enforcement of the law is a must, he observed. Babar urged a social movement like the one against acid throwing that can prompt the government to take effective action.
Prof Imran Rahman, vice chancellor of ULAB, said adulteration was taking place mainly at local level and that there is a cycle of corruption in it, which had expanded over the years.
The country has a chance to forge a movement against the problem as it concerns everybody, he noted.
Golam Sarawar, public analyst of Dhaka South City Corporation, said the new Food Safety Act, 2013 does not categorically specify the role of the local government bodies.
The government has enacted laws targeting formalin, but there are other hazardous chemicals which are used for treating foods. It should be taken into consideration seriously, added the official.
He suggested establishing scientific post-harvest management of crops so that traders can follow it to keep them safe until delivery to the consumers.
Certain pesticides or chemicals might be necessary in some food items, but acceptable limits of those have to be fixed, pointed out Sarawar.
Kamal Prashad Das, a director of Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institution (BSTI), said farmers usually did not know how much pesticides they needed to use due to ignorance.
“We need to educate them in the best agricultural practices, and create awareness among the traders,” he noted, adding that if a scientific management system was developed, the problems would ease.
He insisted on changing the preparation of roadside food items. Enforcement of the Food Safety Act, 2013 can address the problem to a great extent, he observed.
Aman Ullah, chairman of World Orphan Centre, suggested running an awareness campaign through NGOs across the country. Social networking websites like Facebook can also be used in the campaign, he added.
Mahfuz Anam, editor and publisher of The Daily Star, said it was unfortunate that people were buying poisonous food and feeding it to their children with their hard-earned money.
“Unfortunately, this is the reality. For long, we have known that markets are flooded with harmful chemicals and we are consuming them. Where is the evidence of a much-needed political will to address the issue?” he questioned.
It is imperative that a social movement be waged against food contamination, added Mahfuz Anam.
Speakers suggested that the authorities concerned develop a flawless formalin testing kit and set up adequate laboratories to test food items for contamination. Besides, they should also ensure a proper labelling of products and items taken off shelves in shops before their expiry dates.
Dr Shahed Imran of Dhaka Medical College Hospital, Dr Mainul Ahasan of Green Life Medical College and Hospital, Akhtar Kamal Talukder, deputy managing director of Eastern Bank, Kalimur Rahman of Rotary Club of Uttara, Jamil Ahmed of Brac University, Salehuddin Ahmed, managing editor and Shahnoor Wahid, special supplements editor of The Daily Star, also spoke at the round table.