The recent discontent, even uproar, over the alleged incompetence of the country's testing laboratories to conclusively determine the level of contamination in food products, especially the presence of harmful chemicals and other unsafe substances, is indeed worrying.
Clearly, one of the key reasons impeding food safety operations by relevant authorities is the dearth of skilled manpower coupled with inadequate, even imperfect testing procedures. Reports have it that technical capabilities to detect food adulteration and contamination are appallingly poor that helps by default, if not promote, the ever expanding malpractice across the country.
This no doubt is a serious deficiency, and although the authorities, particularly the regulatory body entrusted to ensure food safety -- the Bangladesh Food Safety Authority (BFSA) -- are well aware of this, no effective steps were taken so far to bring some semblance of competence to food testing capabilities. There are quite a number of laboratories in the country that undertake testing jobs, but most of these are reportedly not equipped enough to detect all harmful materials in food products, particularly in processed foods. A local daily reported that only 50 out of around 1,500 laboratories in the country are capable of running a limited number of food tests. They can examine the composite elements in food but are unable to detect presence of any external elements.
How does then the BFSA expect to go about its job? So far, its activities are confined to creating awareness and conducting mobile court drives that often end up in fines and penalties-hefty at times, but limited to eateries and superstores. One may find such drives self-limiting - confined only to the detection of poor hygiene, or stale or inedible foodstuff in freezers. These stray and occasional drives are no substitute for proper lab testing. Understandably, the authorities have no choice but to resort to such measures in the absence of proper lab testing that only can find out contamination and adulteration, if any, in precise details. While contamination of food can be due to negligence, adulteration by toxic chemicals or radioactive materials can only be found out through proper lab tests. So, punishing eateries and superstores looks more like a revenue earning mechanism instead of being one for correction. Between July 2017 and September 2018, mobile courts realised Tk 2.7 crore in fines from 4,255 people for producing or selling unsafe food, according to data compiled by the BFSA. But has it at all helped in ensuring food safety? Observers hold that fining big stores, restaurants or kitchen markets does not help much. Worse, it provides undesirable leverage to those in charge of calling the shots.
Equipping the labs with modern technology and skilled manpower is a must for bringing about the desired change in the country's food safety situation. Obtaining accreditation for an increased number of labs should also be a priority for the authorities. Accreditation will also facilitate testing of exportable food products-both primary and processed-prior to shipment.
Accreditation is an international practice in which certification of competency, authority or credibility is presented. Organisations that issue credentials or certify third parties are themselves formally accredited by accreditation bodies. The testing labs accredited to do the job are thus entrusted to ensure compliance with established technical requirements involving physical, chemical, forensic, quality and security standards. At the moment, there are testing labs in the country under various ministries, but lack of coordination, poor or deficient compliance of quality and technical standards set out by the BSTI (Bangladesh Standard Testing Institute) have resulted in a sense of uncertainty as to the acceptance of their certification in overseas markets. The number of labs that are able to do the job with proper international accreditation are only few and hence they are not in a position to meet the requirements of a cross-section of products.
The country's exports suffer most because of the lack of accreditation local manufacturers, exporters, importers and service organisations have to obtain certification on various counts amid uncertainties. This is more pronounced these days than in the past as the destination markets, especially those in the developed countries, are resorting to increasing trade barriers through stricter non-tariff measures on standards relating to, among others, sanitary and phyto-sanitary aspects. While there is a dearth of well-equipped laboratories in the country to test products prior to exports, the need for compatibility with the standards of overseas markets is yet another major hurdle affecting exports. This is to say, equipping the labs with proper human, technical and logistic resources is not just enough to assure exporters of the entry of their products into the target markets. What is critically important is conformity assessment that can only be ensured through accredited agencies, authorised to conduct tests as per strictly followed and monitored guidelines.
Sometime ago, there were reports in the newspapers that a state body named Bangladesh Accreditation Board (BAB) has been established and that it was going to get its international recognition soon as an authorised agency for providing certificates for exported and imported goods. There has not been much progress on this as of now. It is clear that to qualify for accreditation, the testing labs in the country have to be developed with a clear and targeted roadmap.