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The Financial Express

Ensuring production of contamination-free foods

| Updated: October 20, 2017 23:27:34


Ensuring production of contamination-free foods

Contamination and adulteration of foods with low-quality substitute and toxic chemicals pose a serious threat to public health, especially in a country like Bangladesh where due to poor health literacy, the level of awareness is very low. It has an epidemic proportion in Bangladesh. Adulteration has been dubbed as the 'silent killer'.  All the foods from raw vegetables and fruits to milk and milk products to fish, meat and processed foods are contaminated with carbide, formalin, heavy metal, chemical, textile colours, artificial sweeteners, DDT, urea etc.
In a recent study, it has been found that though people are aware about health hazards, they are nevertheless buying and consuming these adulterated foods. Several explanations are made for this paradox - absence or unavailability of non-adulterated foods and failure of regulatory agencies to test and screen out adulterated foods. These foods are attractive in appearance and cost less. There are cultural factors and food habits etc associated with it. There is no paucity of laws and regulations to contain adulteration of food in Bangladesh since more than one dozen laws are in books and records. However, the problem lies in its sustained and appropriate implementation by any credible authority. The enforcement authorities like the Bangladesh Standard Testing Institute (BSTI), the Directorate of National Consumer Rights Protection and both Dhaka City Corporation authorities only love to go to the markets with TV cameras in action to penalise retail traders for contamination and adulteration of food items. Mobile courts across the country have been frequently destroying fruits contaminated with substandard products or chemicals. However, a group of experts and professionals is not agreeable to the methods of test and test machines do not conform to scientific standards, and that the method is wrong. Chemists, biochemists and chemical engineers at a press conference last year termed the formalin-testing method with Formaldehyde Meter Z-300 'wrong.' The High Court also declared the Meter Z-300 not suitable for test of formalin content in food products. Modern technology, however, plays an important role for pure foods.
However, practices of hygiene and sanitation during production, preparation and marketing of foods provide ample opportunities for prevention of contamination and adulteration. There are several developed countries wherein enforcement is better than that of countries like Bangladesh. They could ensure pure foods with enforcement of laws but we are unable to get benefit of many laws and regulations due to poor enforcement. The European Union (EU) has various laws and rules to regulate traditional foods and they emphasise place of origin (PO), Geographical Indication (GI) and protection of traditional foods and agricultural products. The aim of these regulations is to ensure continuity in production and quality of traditional food products, to protect abuse and imitation of product marks, and to protect consumers against deception.
The 'Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights' (TRIPS), administered by the World Trade Organisation (WTO), has defined geographical indication. GI provides distinctive or quality signs such as geographical names. In particular, the market for agro food products features three categories of goods: search goods, experience goods and credence goods (Nelson, 1970).  These categories of goods are distinguished by the way in which information is conveyed to the consumers. For search goods, the consumers can ascertain quality of an item before buying it. For experience goods, the consumer can ascertain quality only after buying the item. With credence goods, quality cannot be fully determined even after the item has been used.
Geographical indications are used worldwide as an instrument for brand management and diversifying products. In many parts of the world, efforts continue to protect products through registration of geographical origin and traditional indication. The term GI was given a specific definition in Article 22.1 of the TRIPS Agreement, which is the one retained in this article: these are indications which identify goods as originating in the territory of a member-state, or a region or locality in that territory, where a given quality, reputation or other characteristic of the goods is essentially attributable to its geographical origin.
The GI is used to play a very important role to ensure pure foods in many countries. After the introduction of GI on Boseong green tea in Korea in 1999, production doubled and related industries proliferated. In Germany, the quality Swabian Hall Pork Meat's production costs are 12 per cent higher than those of standard pork but the cost is compensated by a 20 - 30 per cent price premium in Germany (Larson, 2007). The economic profitability of dairy farms in the Comté zone has regularly increased since 1990 and these farms are 32 per cent more profitable than similar farms outside the GI region (Bowen, 2008). According to Origenandino (2008), producers of Italian Tuscano olive oil have managed to increase prices of their product by 20 per cent since it was registered as a GI in 1998 (Grote, 2009).
The city dwellers in Bangladesh are served by alternate sellers who come up with assurance of chemical-free slogans. They are new businesspersons usually from other professions to bring seasonal fruits to the city from growers. Their offered service seems expensive although they sell products to consumers directly but the price is higher than the regular market price of fruits on the street or in the market. They have also started make-shift shops in the corner of a street with the banner of CHEMICAL-FREE fruits. But unfortunately one regulator conducted a survey of those shops at Gulshan-1, Gulshan-2, Sat Masjid Road, Green Road, Fakirapool, Shantinagar Bazar, Dhanmondi, Karwan Bazar, New Market, Lalbagh, Rampura Bazar, Madhya Badda, Gulshan Gudaraghat, Malibagh, Azimpur, Palashi Bazar, Mouchak, Agargaon, Sadarghat, Badamtoli, Gulistan, Jatrabari, Shah Ali Market, Town Hall Market, Jatrabari and Kalabagan and revealed that even those offered fruits are contaminated with formalin.
But there was a unique successful method applied by donors and some NGOs in collaboration with the Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE) to produce, pack and export mangoes to the UK market in 2015. This was the first export of Bangladeshi mangoes to mainstream international market. One NGO was actively involved with farmers to train them on commercial cultivation of sweetest mangoes like gopalbhog, lengra, fazlee,  khirsapati, mohanbhog, chyatapori, haribhanga and lakhna in 60 orchards. About 180 farmers under nine upazilas in three districts of Satkhira, Chapainawabganj and Rajshahi were  registered to supply mangoes and got training and support. It was possible with the UN FAO providing support to the Hortex Foundation. Many farmers and value chain actors got necessary training on best agricultural practices and with that they started exploring the high-value export markets.  
The process was supported by the DAE to ensure absence of pest, disease or chemical contamination.  Meanwhile, the Hortex Foundation of the Ministry of Agriculture held discussions with buyers, and ensured provision of all necessary certifications. The FAO-supported National Food Safety Laboratory at the Institute of Public Health (IPH), Bangladesh, tested samples collected from Satkhira and gave clearance for export. This is a good experience of Bangladesh which can be replicated for producing and marketing seasonal fruits and vegetables to local markets.
The present policy of involving mobile courts has proved to be ineffective to ensure pure food for all citizens. On the other hand, mobile court has been declared ultra vires to the Constitution of Bangladesh by the High Court and the matter is pending for a final decision of the Appellate Division.  
The process of ensuring contamination-free foods, including fruits, should start with training of farmers and support by the DAE. Consultations with all stakeholders like farmers, traders and others and close supervision by different departments with active support of NGOs can help achieve the desired goal of providing pure food for all.  Why is Bangladesh ignoring its own experience?
The writer is a legal economist.
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