Since contaminated and unsafe foods are a cause of many acute and life-long diseases from diarrhoea to variants of cancer, Bangladesh lacking a proper regular monitoring system to assess food contamination’s impact on public health is another reason to worry
Today is the second National Food Safety Day. Introduced in 2018 to mark food safety and self-sufficiency in Bangladesh, this year the day calls for providing safe food to everyone.
As food contamination and adulteration has become serious public health concerns, the fight against them has only gotten stronger. Since contaminated and unsafe foods are a cause of many acute and life-long diseases from diarrhoea to variants of cancer, Bangladesh lacking a proper regular monitoring system to assess food contamination’s impact on public health is another reason to worry.
Data from the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research (icddr,b) shows every day, an average of 501 people visit hospitals only for diarrhoea – which can be attributed to food and waterborne causes, let alone other food adulteration diseases. Still, the picture is not complete, as the reality is much more worrisome.
In light of these prevailing scenarios, the country will observe National Food Safety Day 2019 on Saturday.
Fight against the food adulteration was institutionalized after the government established Bangladesh Food Safety Authority (BFSA) on February 2, 2015. But the agency really made some strides in the past year..
But Bangladesh has a long way to go as adulteration is widespread and hygienic practices among commercial food producers and food traders – ranging from renowned food companies to street vendors – is not ideal.
The BFSA says they had to start almost from scratch because there was no precedent in the past for approaches in the war against food adulteration.
Mahbub Kabir, a BFSA member, said: “We need three things to operate in full swing. We need more manpower. We have offices and staff in the districts, but we need to get down to the upazilas. We are lacking state-of-the-art laboratories and equipment. And, some existing laws regarding food need to be amended.
The BFSA authorities are now working to amend some of the related laws.
Food courts and colour codes
The government has established 71 courts across the country to try offenses under the Food Safety Act, 2013. Each court has been assigned a public prosecutor. In addition, a legal advisor has been appointed to deal with writ petitions filed against the BFSA.
According to the BFSA, mobile courts run by executive magistrates under the Food Safety Act, 2013 operated 2,345 mobile courts which sentenced 239 people to imprisonment and fined more than Tk2 crores from July 2017 to June 2018. A total of 4,209 cases were filed against the offenders.
BFSA magistrates also operated 18 mobile courts, convicted 27 people and imposed fines amounting to Tk 84 lakh between October and December last year. A total of 160 regular cases filed under the law in 2018 for violating the law.
BFSA’s move of grading restaurants to help consumers determine the hygiene and quality of food at eateries also received a round of applause. Starting in January, they awarded 57 restaurants after intense scrutiny with green and blue coloured stickers.
The coloured stickers—green, blue, yellow, and orange—symbolize the grades A+, A, B, and C respectively. The green sticker stands for “excellent” and is only awarded to restaurants that score 90 points or above, while the blue sticker represents “good” and is awarded to restaurants that receive 80–89 points.
A yellow sticker represents an “average” score of 60–79 points, while orange stands for a pending grade for restaurants which score 59 points or lower. Restaurants with the latter two grades are required to improve before their grades are reviewed. If they fail, their licences will be cancelled.
So far, the colour-coded grading is only being implemented in the capital’s Motijheel, Dilkhusha, and Paltan areas.
BFSA Chairman Mohammad Mahfuzul Hoque said they will review the grading to keep the restaurants on their toes. The restaurants will also have a chance of upgrading their grades if they can improve their hygienic conditions.
The authorities also claimed they have stopped importing formalin under the many pseudonyms from abroad and are working to prevent use of chemicals in food products.
Mahbub Kabir said: “We have also withdrawn some imported baby foods from the market as they contained Salmonella Agona bacteria.”
He added that the main obstacle against ensuring food safety is the lack of awareness among common people and producers’ tendency to profit unethically. But he also said that the BFSA has launched awareness programs for school students about food hygiene.
In keeping with the spirit of Digital Bangladesh, the BFSA will also launch a YouTube channel to create public awareness.
Concerns, accountability, and access
The BFSA officials said a number of ideas need to be implemented as soon as possible to develop a rudimentary scenario of food safety in the country.
Authorities are now working to establish a food testing laboratory of international standards, a gross oversight in the food sector since independence. Another plan involves setting up some mobile laboratories which will test the products at kitchen markets.
They are part of plan to upgrade the kitchen markets of Dhaka to healthy markets where no product will be permitted to be sold without screening.
Another major concern for consumers is the unregulated use of ripening agents on fruits. The agency says it will establish a body called the Artifical Ripening Chamber which will monitor use of food colouring, preservatives, etc. And to create public awareness, commercials will be broadcast on television to spread messages against using industrial colours, unauthorized food preservatives, ripening fruits using chemicals, using excessive fertilizers, and using hormones, steroids, antibiotics on animals.
In addition, the BFSA says they are planning to set up a call center to listen to public opinions and complains.
To fully drive their point home, the BFSA is also making inroads into education. Mahbub Kabir said the BFSA is working to introduce an Honours course in Food Safety Management and a diploma course for food inspectors. He hopes it will provide an avenue for many people who are interested into joining the crusade for food safety.