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What’s on your plate?

  • Published at 05:45 pm March 1st, 2017
  • Last updated at 09:42 pm March 1st, 2017
What’s on your plate?

The main causes for the endemic food adulteration are various and grievous in nature.

There have been a big number of legislations in force to stop the adulteration of food. Our constitution itself outlines the strict measures to deal with food adulteration.

As per Article 18 of the Constitution, it would be the state’s prime responsibility to ensure a satisfactory level of nutrition and public health. The parliament later enacted several laws under its constitutional responsibility to deal with food adulteration. Despite there being a large body of statutes in force, food adulteration has proven to be unstoppable and, as such, the people have been suffering. But what are the real reasons behind this epidemic of food adulteration problems and how can we solve it?

Are the existing laws themselves defective, or do the problems lie in the implementation of them? The real issues are manifold in nature. The laws have many inherent defects and the implementation of them is being done poorly. The country’s socio-economic standards and lack of mass awareness also play vital roles in making food adulteration prominent.

Despite the efforts of the authorities, adulteration remains simply unstoppable. Subsequently, what I wanted to investigate were the reasons behind this, and find out whether there was any possibility for relief.

The inherent defects of food safety laws

Sections 272, 273, 274, 275, and 276 of Penal Code 1860 have provided for the provisions of punishments for the crimes of adulteration of food or drink intended for sale, the sale of noxious food or drink, adulteration of drugs, the sale of adulterated drugs, and the sale of drugs as a different drug or preparation. The common punishments for the above-mentioned crimes are just six months in prison or Tk1,000 as fine, or both. This can hardly be considered to be effective in terms of the grievousness of the crime.

The convicted criminals are seen happy to face the punishment again and again, and the laws are, at best, silly in comparison. The Law Commission in 2006 submitted a report with a draft bill recommending the enhancement of punishments prescribed in Sections 272, 273, 274, 275, and 276 of the Penal Code.   

Section 6A of the Bangladesh Pure Food Ordinance 1959 provides for the provisions prohibiting different chemical substances which include melamine but not sodium cyclamate. As the law does not prohibit the using of sodium cyclamate, the mobile courts find it really difficult to frame the culprits using sodium cyclamate in the food products and thus ordinance has been considered to be defective.

It has been criticised widely as a result. However, it appears to be a good sign that, as a response to the critique, parliament has taken steps to amend the ordinance and introduce the National Food Safety Council, headed by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare to look after the violations of food safety laws.

The Food (Special Courts) Act 1956 has provided for punishments for violating the “notified order” issued under the Control of Essential Commodities Act 1956, which is three years’ imprisonment or a fine, or both. No direction has been given regarding the amount of the fine, and thus the punishment provision has been criticised for being vague and lax. Because of the poor or no implementation of laws, law breakers for food safety most of the time go unpunished or uncaught.

Because of the poor or no implementation of laws, law-breakers for food safety most of the times go unpunished

The Food Safety Act also has a provision for setting up of a unified authority, namely  Bangladesh Food Safety Authority (BFSA, in short) modelled on the American Food and Drug Administration, comprising of a chairman and five members to fight food adulteration and attend to other food-related concerns.

The BFSA will draw resources from all 15 government ministries entrusted with combatting food adulteration. But how BFSA will coordinate activities with other ministries and the Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institution (BSTI) has not been spelled out precisely.

Under this Act, there is a provision of maximum five years’ imprisonment or a fine of Tk10 lakh, or both, for persons guilty of food adulteration and this amount of the fine will be doubled in case of repeating offences.

This punishment has also been criticised as being not harsh enough, and consequently ineffective in preventing crimes of food adulteration. Mohammad Nasim, the minister of health, has proposed increasing the punishment to a death penalty.

Enforcement problems

It is now an open secret that the personnel responsible for implementing food safety laws and regulations are corrupt individuals. Moreover, the administrative enforcement mechanism is not organised.

It has not designed inspection strategies, and there is no clear method of detecting non-compliance with the regulations. There is no particular enforcement authority or any authorised officer who is exclusively responsible for enforcing food safety regulations in Bangladesh. A robust food safety regulatory regime should be observed to stop food adulteration. Bangladesh is yet to have such a regime, which has resulted in country-wide food adulteration problems.

In the context of the present situations, the country needs a well-drafted and up-to-date legislation which could provide real resolutions. The implementation agencies should also have sufficient corruption-free manpower, logistics supports, and should be run under an efficient management system.

Md Monzurul Alam is an Advocate, Supreme Court of Bangladesh.