A recipe for a public health disaster
Going by numerous recent news reports, we have good reason to be worried about the state of food safety in the country. One would think it's a miracle that a full-blown public health crisis hasn't broken out yet, especially since even staple foods are clearly not safe. Lead and pesticides have been found in milk, and poultry feed has been found to be laced with antibiotics, among a host of contaminated food products being sold in the market. What is so concerning is that the problem seems to have ballooned to biblical proportions and it is hard to even wrap one's head around the entire debacle.
One thing, however, is clear: our right to safe food is among a long list of casualties in the absence of the rule of law. But here's the thing: unlike many other rights violations and malpractices that we regularly turn a blind eye to and simply wish away, food adulteration isn't something that we can easily ignore without risking our health and wellbeing. Nothing can be a greater danger to public health than the presence of adulterants, potentially at a mass scale, in the food we eat. And the fact of the matter is that we continue to be in the dark about the extent to which the food we are routinely consuming is contaminated.
Since the beginning of this year, hordes of news reports have emerged that once again reflect the sorry state of food safety in Bangladesh. Take poultry for example. A report in January claimed that the government banned the import and sale of meat and bone meal (MBM), a kind of poultry feed, which can cause anthrax, antibiotic resistance and cancer. MBM was banned in many countries including India, which banned it in 2001, and the EU in 1994. Apart from MBM, various types of antibiotics in almost 50 percent poultry feed samples of 14 brands collected from four districts were also found by a government study. This is beyond concerning because we derive a large part of our protein intake—36 percent, according to the fisheries and livestock ministry—from poultry. It goes without saying that the presence of MBM and antibiotics in poultry feed samples could spell disaster for public health in ways beyond our imagination.
The government must have figured out by now that mere bans on paper do not work. After all, the use of antibiotics in poultry feed is "banned" and even import of MBM containing harmful elements is illegal. But traders have been quite successful in importing both antibiotics and MBM in large quantities, intended for use in poultry feed, under the nose of the very same customs authorities that are now somehow expected to enforce the ban. There is, of course, no guarantee that will ever happen.
Most of the country's institutions and sectors have already been done irreparable damage due to the immoral actions of a handful of people driven by the sole motive of profit. The food sector is no different. The routine use of harmful substances such as MBM and antibiotics in poultry feed, for example, is due to their cheapness and because they help ensure "low mortality and good growth of chickens", which basically translates to lower production costs for traders. And who's going to stop them? The poultry industry is, after all, very lucrative and is a source of livelihood for millions. According to a United States Department of Agriculture report, one million entrepreneurs and eight million people are involved in Bangladesh's poultry sector and commercially produce 10.22 billion eggs and 1.46 million tonnes of poultry meat annually.
If the poultry industry is a microcosm of the state of food safety in the country, the picture couldn't get any scarier. It seems like no food product in the market is immune to contamination. A Dhaka University study found detergent (yes, you read that right) and antibiotics for humans in packaged milk in kitchen markets and grocery shops. Some of the most trusted brands—which regularly bombard us with advertisements that bank on their top "quality"—are also guilty of playing havoc with food safety. The same DU study found nine other food items manufactured by some of the top brands miserably failing the Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institution (BSTI) standards. These products include everyday essentials such as ghee, turmeric powder, dry chilli powder, and palm oil.
All this makes you wonder: what have the regulatory bodies been doing all this time? What is to explain the utter failure of the BSTI, Bangladesh Food Safety Authority (BFSA), and relevant ministries (food, agriculture, livestock and fisheries, industries) in putting a halt to food adulteration all these years—a problem which has now mushroomed beyond control?
The shortage of skilled manpower and equipment is a major problem. BFSA Chairman Mohammad Mahfuzul Hoque, in an interview published in this daily last year, said: "Some of them [laboratories for food tests] have equipment but not skilled manpower, while some have manpower but not good equipment." The lack of accredited laboratories is also one of a long list of issues in the process of identifying adulterated food products and taking action against manufacturers; this essentially means that tests done by unaccredited laboratories are dismissed out of hand by businesses. Clearly, many of these institutions that we depend on for oversight of the food industry are far from well-equipped or well-staffed. For proper food safety management, what's required is a large pool of highly skilled manpower which Bangladesh has consistently been facing a shortage of in many important sectors, including RMG. Shortage of manpower also means that it is extremely hard, if not impossible, to maintain constant monitoring which is essential in a country like Bangladesh, where many companies, after receiving the BSTI certificate, carry out operations violating every word in the rulebook. BSTI certificates, therefore, do not necessarily mean that the product(s) the company is manufacturing is safe.
Lack of capacity aside, some recent, very curious developments should make us sit back and think deeply. In May, a High Court order asked the BSTI, BFSA, and the Directorate of National Consumer Rights Protection (DNCRP) to recall 52 adulterated food products from the market (as revealed by a BSTI report). Even a HC order, however, couldn't prompt all of them into action. In the same month, the HC summoned the BFSA chairman for failing to recall the 52 products. (It is to be noted though that the "court, however, expressed satisfaction with the compliance report submitted by DNCRP which said it had conducted drives at markets almost all over the country and confiscated substandard and adulterated food items," and BSTI cancelled licences of seven food companies that featured on the list of the 52 products.) What is so disappointing is that this is not the first time the authorities have been unable to recall bad products. But here's the real shocker: the BSTI, a month after it released the report outlining the substandard products, magically found most of the 52 products to pass the standards in a retest.
This fiasco only goes to show that we need, more than ever, independent researchers to step up and carry out tests on food samples in the market and disseminate the results in a transparent manner. Because right now, as the above incidents show, there is a dearth of reliability and confidence in tests being carried out by government bodies whose results are only creating confusion and chaos.
For years now, countless surveys and studies have been exposing the levels of contamination in the food we eat. And for years, we have seen little to no progress in reining in businesses and traders who have been making a mockery of food safety and people's health and wellbeing. In the midst of this miserable state of affairs is the lack of consumer rights and awareness, which means that there is very little likelihood of the consumers protesting the harmful products flooding the market.
It is a travesty that our right to safe food, a basic right, is being trampled upon despite the consumers picking up the tab for higher food prices year after year with no guarantee of improved quality. As food producers remain determined about safety practices not cutting into their profit margins and as weak regulatory bodies remain helpless and powerless in the face of malpractices in the sector, we, the consumers, will eventually end up paying the steepest price when all this comes to a head.
Nahela Nowshin is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.
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