The Financial Express

Regulating the domestic food market

Regulating the domestic food market

It is pretty well known that increase in productivity and expansion of domestic food chain are often not viewed in the context of standard certification and compliance norms. There are agencies in the country such as the Bangladesh Standard Testing Institute (BSTI) and the Bangladesh Food Safety Authority (BFSA) to regulate among others quality and standard of food products, but in reality markets all over the country are left to run on traders' sweet will without the least monitoring.    

While food security should be the prime concern for a country like ours, it is unsafe food that also figures prominently, albeit threateningly, in most parts of the country.  Ensuring safe food for all remains a major challenge as there is neither any systematic effort, nor effective intervention to keep food chain safe -- from farm to plate. With population growth and increasing pace of urbanisation, new concerns about food safety and nutrition are emerging. These among others include non-availability of enough nutritious food, poor food quality and the accompanying health hazards from adulteration and so on.

The central regulatory body, the Bangladesh Food Safety Authority (BFSA), established years ago to specifically look into the matter, is far from being effective for lack of technical expertise and adequate manpower. Its activities are concentrated in cities, mainly in the capital Dhaka, and focused mostly on awareness campaigns. There are occasional drives in kitchen markets, restaurants and super-markets--- usually in big cities. Fines are imposed, sometimes heftily; even criminal proceedings are also filed. But these do not appear to have changed the situation at all. In the absence of any corrective measures ---punishing the offenders is not always the appropriate method of correction - it all ends up in some 'revenues' earned by the law enforcers.

It is clear that the raids by mobile courts have not been able to leave any noticeable mark on the safety of food products. For all practical purposes, punitive measures should be backed by actions to improve the quality and standard of food of all varieties. To monitor the situation, inspection and sudden raids are welcome, but the fact that must not be forgotten is that inspection is just one of the elements to ensure food safety. The way the authorities keep drumming up anti-adulteration drives, it seems too much emphasis is being given on punishment, believing it alone would do the rest of the job.

That the authorities are wrong has been amply proved by the ever-increasing incidents of adulteration. Observers hold that it is a broad-based --- perhaps a countrywide -- network that devious business people find highly profit-driven. Fining big stores or restaurants or kitchen markets do not help much. Worse, it provides undesirable leverage to those in charge of calling the shots.

Several studies reveal widespread contamination in and adulteration of a wide range of foods from powdered baby milk to drinking water.

Agricultural products are found contaminated with high pesticide and antibiotic residues while gaping leaks across value chains expose them to widespread microbial contamination. Harmful dyes are used to colour foods. Fertiliser ingredients like ammonium nitrate are found in sweets and bakery items to extend shelf life. Industrial grade ethephon and carbide are used for ripening fruits. Restaurants are hardly found following hygiene codes. Food safety and health experts see a link between the rising trends in non-communicable diseases and consumption of substandard and unsafe foods.

While contamination of food can be due to negligence, deliberate adulteration by toxic chemicals or radioactive materials for long shelf life of products and increasing the volume in size and weight, among the many crooked methods, is so rampant that it is difficult to find anyone who has not encountered an unpleasant moment of food-borne illness at least once a year.  While some illnesses may be self-limiting, others can be very serious and even life-threatening. Taking care of the situation thus calls for a whole package of initiatives. In advanced countries this involves producing, handling, storing and preparing foods in such a way as to prevent infection and contamination in the entire chain. However, in situations such as in this country, it is not merely about maintaining a clean chain but putting in strong deterrents so that criminality in the business could be stopped. Availability of harmful stuffs must not be encouraged, if necessary, by way of a ban on imports or local production. Strong advocacy on the detrimental affects of consumption should be routinely done. At the same time, training on safe and scientific methods of preservation of food products should also be a high priority in an attempt to curb adulteration. 

The BSTI clearly has a major role to play, and although it has been revamped to some extent in the recent past, there is no visible control in its mechanism to ensure that food products are produced and marketed as per its guideline. Among the scores of food products, BSTI has brought only a few under its mandatory network. According to report published in a local daily, so far, the agency has either formulated or adopted about 4,000 standards of which about 5.0 per cent of the standards are mandatory. Quoting retailers, the report says most food items including frozen and canned foods are completely outside BSTI's watch list.

The BSTI is facing dearth of technical manpower, and so formulating standards, certification of products and market watch prove too heavy a load on it. Because of these constraints, its activities barely go to wider areas where the majority of the population live, who for their daily needs consume whatever they find readily available.

Ensuring food safety is a huge task. Countries that have developed methods of market watch took decades of hard work, that too with sufficient human and technological resources. For us, the starter could be formulating a model for improved food chain and distribution. The immediate task for the agencies concerned would be to ensure compliance with the rules, hygiene codes etc in a regular and systematic manner, and to do this, attention has to be on the entire supply chain including farm-level production of primary, intermediate and final products.


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