Too many cooks spoil the broth
Laws abound, but they have failed to ensure food safety mostly for a lack of enforcement and coordination among the government bodies responsible for preventing food adulteration.
As many as 15 ministries and their agencies are tasked with enforcing more than a dozen laws to check contamination in the production, processing and marketing of food items.
Besides, the roles and responsibilities of the government authorities are not clearly defined in the laws, said people working on food safety issues.
Above all, there is neglect on the part of the regulatory authorities in enforcing these laws.
“There are more laws than required but none is properly implemented,” said Manzill Murshid, a Supreme Court lawyer and president of Human Rights and Peace for Bangladesh.
Many of the government officials working on food safety are corrupt, observed Humayun Kabir Bhuiyan, general secretary of the Consumers Association of Bangladesh.
Whenever the association or the media raise the contamination issue, the authorities blame it on the shortage of manpower assigned to monitor the market, he said.
“But the existing workforce is not working sincerely either.”
They often keep mum under pressure from influential businessmen or in exchange for bribes, Humayun alleged.
In the wake of reports on rampant use of harmful chemicals, additives and ripening agents, the government in October last year enacted a law replacing the age-old Pure Food Ordinance, 1959 to bring all food safety issues under one umbrella.
The Safe Food Act (Nirapad Khaddyo Ain) 2013 provides for the formation of a unified authority styled National Pure Food Authority that will work in coordination with different ministries concerned to address all issues and complaints relating to adulteration and hygiene. But the government has yet to issue a gazette notification.
Food Minister Qamrul Islam has recently said it will take at least a year for the law to be in force.
An authority will have to be formed, an office set up and some rules framed to enforce the act, which involves 12 or 13 ministries, and so it will take long, he added.
His ministry has already prepared a draft of the rules for the law and sent it to the law ministry for vetting.
The government will implement the law as in India and Malaysia, so that it becomes meaningful in checking food adulteration in Bangladesh, Qamrul said.
Former food minister Abdur Razzaque, however, has different views.
"We had prepared rules for the implementation of the law with consent from the prime minister. I don't know why so much time is needed," he told The Daily Star.
The latest act is very much comprehensive and effective, and no other law is necessary for ensuring safe food if it comes into effect, Razzaque said.
The law has a provision for five years' jail and a Tk 10 lakh fine as maximum punishment.
Advocate Syed Mohidul Kabir, who moved a writ petition before the HC, seeking its directive on the government to issue a gazette notification to enforce the act, said the government was not enforcing the law just to protect the interest of some vested quarters.
It should not take more than a few days to make the law effective, he added.
Asked how food adulteration is to be dealt with until the law takes effect, the food minister said the existing laws would cover that.
However, people have seen nothing but some sporadic actions, mainly anti-adulteration drives, conducted by the commerce and industries ministries and the city corporations.
Dhaka Metropolitan Police launched a drive in June against “chemical-laced fruits”. It set up eight checkpoints around the capital to check the entry of formalin-tainted fruits into the capital only for a few days.
But there has not been a clear road map to food safety, said Syed Mahbubul Alam, secretary of Paribesh Bachao Andolan.
“It [the government] seems insincere in dealing with the matter.”
Explaining his point, Mahbubul Alam said the city corporations were responsible for checking food adulteration. "But they don't even have a cell where someone can lodge complaints about adulteration."
Against this backdrop, consumers are not left with much choice.
"We don't want to see how many laws are there to prevent adulteration. We only want safe food and the government has to ensure it. We don't want to give our kids poisonous food," said Saiful Alam, a resident of Gulshan.
Humayun Kabir Bhuiyan of the Consumers Association of Bangladesh said public awareness is imperative.
People should refrain from buying fruits and other food items that can be avoided in daily consumption, and that would create pressure on unscrupulous businessmen, he said.
Campaigns against food adulteration may be carried out across the country and leaflets warning people of health impacts may be distributed to pressurise the government into taking up the matter seriously, Humayun said.