The High Court yesterday ordered that Formaldehyde Meter Z-300 be tested in three labs to see how accurate it is in detecting formalin in food.
The order came hot on the heels of the government's large-scale use of the Z-300 in labelling tonnes of food, mostly fruits, formalin tainted and having them destroyed. Questions were also raised from different quarters as to how good the meter was in detecting formalin.
The court asked the government to have the machine checked by Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institution, Bangladesh Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, and National Food Safety Laboratory and submit the reports to the court in four weeks.
Yesterday's court order did not ask the government to stop the use of Z-300 in detecting toxic chemicals in food. It asked the government why its use of Z-300 to detect formalin in fruits and vegetables should not be declared illegal.
The order came in response to a writ petition filed by Fruit Importers' Association.
“Use of formalin in food is a heinous crime. It must be stopped. But, if thousands of tonnes of fruits are destroyed on the basis of tests with inappropriate machines, it will be damaging to the traders, farmers and consumers,” said Manzill Murshid, counsel of the petitioners.
Mobile courts have been using Z-300 over the last two years to detect formalin in fish, fruits and vegetables after the Department of Fisheries imported the gear from the USA in early 2012.
In mid-June this year, joint teams of Dhaka Metropolitan Police and BSTI started checking all consignments of fruits, mainly mangoes and litchis at eight entry points of the capital and destroyed tonnes of fruits, fined traders and sent some of them to jail.
The teams also conducted drives across the country, upsetting traders, growers and some experts who said the Z-300 was not meant for detecting formalin in food and that they were incurring huge losses because of the mobile court drives.
On June 17, The Daily Star ran a report titled “Kit itself unfit”, where food scientists said the kit was meant to measure chemicals or gases in the air of labs or hospitals, not in food.
Monirul Islam, director (nutrition) at Bangladesh Agricultural Research Council, who assessed the tool as part of a study in food adulteration, said the Z-300 picks up on other chemicals like aldehyde, ketone or hydroxyl groups and does not distinguish them from formalin.
He said aldehyde and ketones were widespread in nature and some amount of natural formaldehyde existed in fish, fruits and vegetables.
He said the machine was not appropriate for measuring formalin in food.
Petitioner's lawyer Manzill claimed that the machine showed presence of formalin in all fruits when it was used, and the law enforcers' anti-formalin drive created an adverse impact on the economy.
The US maker of the Z-300 -- Environmental Sensors Co -- in an email informed the petitioners that the kit was used for examining the purity of air, he told The Daily Star.
The secretaries of the ministries of health, food and home; chairman of BCSIR, director of NFSL, inspector general of police, director generals of Rapid Action Battalion and the Directorate of National Consumer Rights Protection; DMP commissioner and the managing director of the instrument importing company -- Tracer Electrocom Bangladesh -- have been made respondents to the rule and order issued yesterday.