The world today is observing World Food Day with the theme, “Healthy diet for a Zero Hunger world”, This is a worthy fight to pick, particularly for Bangladesh, a country where we are constantly assailed with news of food adulteration and contamination. The mobile court drives that fine fruit sellers and milk producers for selling contaminated products, and restaurant owners for serving unhygienic and inedible food to the customers, are a testament to the low-quality food that we are consuming day in and day out.
Take, for example, the contaminated milk episode we have experienced recently. In case we need a reminder, a study by Biomedical Research Centre of Dhaka University had found traces of harmful pesticides and antibiotics like ciprofloxacin, azithromycin and levofloxacin that are used to treat bacterial infections in humans, and even lead, in packaged milk of 14 major dairy brands. Following further tests of milk samples—amidst fire and brimstone from various quarters, with a government high-up threatening the lead researcher of the study with consequences and the milk producers “uncovering” foreign conspiracy to tarnish their good names in this chaos—it was found that the 14 brands did indeed contain elements that are harmful for human health. This resulted in the High Court banning production, distribution and sale of pasteurised milk of the said brands for five weeks.
Within days, in a surprising turn of events, the Supreme Court lifted the High Court ban on the 14 milk brands and things returned to normalcy—for everyone, including the consumers. After the hotchpotch and uncertainty of the preceding weeks, people could finally heave a sigh of relief and go back to their business as usual. The entire milk fiasco was, as this author had written in a previous article, “sacrificed at the altar of the nation’s chronic short attention span.” We are still buying these milk brands from the stores and consuming them with the blissful ignorance of a child—an ignorance that we have chosen over food safety.
Only yesterday, another food adulteration related news made the headlines: high amounts of lead have been found in turmeric powder available in various parts of the country—an indispensable ingredient of Bengali cuisine; a product found in every single Bengali household. The report added that there is no safe consumption level for lead and it is very dangerous for pregnant women and can result in stunted growth of children.
A similar story came into the limelight in 2013, when a reputed local brand of turmeric powder had to recall its products from the local market, because the US’ Food & Drug Administration, the New York Health Department and a private laboratory found excessive amounts of lead (48ppm) in the said turmeric powder brand which had been exported to the US. Later, the brand returned to the market, and was then banned again earlier this year by BSTI followed by a High Court instruction to remove 52 products, which included the turmeric powder brand, for failing quality tests. After retesting though, the ban on the turmeric powder brand was lifted by BSTI, along with two other products.
Incidents like these have become a common scenario in Bangladesh. We have become accustomed to news of this nature, inured to them.
That said, Bangladesh has made great strides in the last few decades in increasing food production. According to government sources, food production has gone up 40.13 million metric tons. The country also ranks 4th in the world as a rice producer. And we stand 3rd in producing fish and vegetables—how safe they are for consumption is an entirely different matter.
Thus one cannot help but wonder, with adulterated food disdainfully making their way into our tables, how close are we to achieving food security beyond the statistics, and in the real world?
There are certainly gaps in the food value chain. And the problem of contamination starts at as early as the pre-production process, which is why heavy metal elements have been found in cow milk or pesticides used in agriculture and unhealthy chemicals in fresh produce.
According to Prof ABM Faroque, former director of Biomedical Research Centre at the Faculty of Pharmacy, Dhaka University, the heavy metal elements might have found their way into the food chain through the water the cows are made to drink or the low-grade fertilizers we use to grow crops, which contain impure elements. Additionally, the excessive use of pesticide to protect fruits and vegetables from insects can result in contamination, since a portion of the insecticides are absorbed in the produce.
There is an evident lack of coordination between the stakeholders in the food business; the various narratives that have emerged from different food control agencies in the wake of the milk fiasco are a manifestation of this persistent problem. This has resulted in lapses in our food quality control process, leading to the myriad problems we are currently facing.
The government enacted the Food Safety Act 2013 in order to address this issue. The Act aims to facilitate coordination among different food control agencies in order to remove the loopholes in the system.
But six years down the line, how much have we been able to achieve in terms of providing healthy and safe food for the citizens? The questions that have been raised over the quality of food, including milk, turmeric and other consumer products that had to be banned, present an unflattering picture. We have a long way ahead of us in this journey.
The Food Safety Act 2013 needs to be more stringently implemented. All the stakeholders, including the relevant government agencies, private dairy businesses and non-government organisations working in this sector, must take collaborative measures to promote agricultural methods that would yield safer food for the people. At the same time, we have to address problems like water and soil contamination in order to prevent heavy metal elements and pesticides from creeping into our food value chain.
It is time for concrete and effective actions—actions that will ensure healthy food for the people, because as stated by Anna Lartey, Director of Nutrition and Food Systems, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “It’s not enough to simply fill people’s stomachs–they must be nourished.”
Tasneem Tayeb is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star. Her Twitter handle is @TayebTasneem.