Unsafe food leaves nasty taste in BangladeshConsumption of adulterated food increases the risks of malnutrition, food poisoning and fatal diseases
In February, Bangladesh’s High Court ordered the state-run Bangladesh Standard and Testing Institution (BSTI) to submit test reports on a range of food items in response to a public interest writ petition.
The BSTI, the regulatory body for standardization of services and products, followed the order and tested 406 samples of items including salt, turmeric, chili powder, curry powder, mustard oil, bottled drinking water, butter, flour, noodles, crisps and biscuits.
The initial test reports, submitted in May, showed 52 items out of 313 tested were substandard and they were from 46 leading companies in Bangladesh.
The court ordered immediate removal of these items from the market and revocation of their licenses. It also asked the government to wage “a war against food adulteration” like the recent war on drugs.
Then, in the second phase of testing reports published in June, the BSTI found 22 of the remaining 93 food items to be below standard and ordered parent companies to remove them or face legal action.
The revelations were shocking but not surprising in the developing South Asian country, which has struggled with food adulteration for years.
“Ours is an impoverished and overpopulated country where a large number of people are illiterate and ignorant about the risks of adulterated and substandard foods. This lays the ground for unscrupulous businessmen to sell contaminated food items to people at a cheap rate,” said Dr. Sahadev Chandra Saha, director of the state-run Bangladesh Safe Food Authority.
The agency is tasked with inspecting food items in markets, shops and restaurants, but it cannot do enough due to challenges, he said.
“We have huge responsibilities but we have a shortage of manpower. We often hire inspectors from the Food Ministry to conduct food inspections, but they are not always available. This malpractice will take some time to go away,” Dr. Saha said.
The Directorate of National Consumer Rights Protection carries out food safety awareness campaigns across the country.
“The problem of adulterated and substandard food is not just a legal issue but also a social and behavioral problem. We are trying to bring those changes,” said deputy director Priyanka Dutta.
Laws poorly enforced and followed
Bangladesh has about 15 laws to ensure food safety that make food contamination a punishable offense, but they have done little to curb the problem.
For years, consumer rights groups and media have accused companies and traders of using harmful adulterants such as arsenic, formalin, dyes, metals, fertilizers and poor quality raw ingredients in a wide range of food items including milk and milk products, fruits and fruit drinks, vegetables, soups, fish and fish products and biscuits.
Although little research has been done, the media has regularly reported on the presence of hazardous toxicants and the indiscriminate use of pesticides, toxins, food additives and preservatives in agricultural products.
In 2012, the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization set up the National Food Safety Laboratory at the state-run Institute of Public Health.
A pilot research project on food safety found the presence of banned pesticides such as DDT, aldrin, chlordane and heptachlor in fruits, vegetables, fishes and milk products among others. The study found that levels of toxicants in agricultural products were three to 20 times higher than the limits set by the European Union.
Every year during Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting, authorities carry out a series of crackdowns on substandard and adulterated foods, especially in cities such as Dhaka. Mobile courts are sent out to raid kitchen markets, sweet shops and restaurants, among others, and they file lawsuits and impose fines on businessmen over food forgery.
Consumer rights groups and top government officials believe these crackdowns are not enough to end the menace of bad foods.
Food Minister Sadhon Chandra Majumder told a press conference in May that the government has a “zero tolerance policy” on food adulteration. An amendment to food safety laws to introduce stringent punishments was being considered.
“The level of punishment will be increased to stop food adulteration. If needed, we will make a provision for capital punishment or life imprisonment by amending the present Food Safety Act, 2013,” he said.
On May 27, a senior leader of the ruling Awami League described food adulterers as “enemies of the nation” and sought the death penalty for them.
“Those who adulterate food are the biggest terrorists in society and enemies of the nation. They should be awarded the death sentence as they are killing people by contaminating foods,” said Muhammad Nasim, a former minister of health and family welfare.
Consumption of adulterated and substandard food increases the risks of malnutrition, food poisoning and fatal diseases such as cancer, experts say.
“Contaminated foods have slow-poisoning effects on the human body and can be fatal. The recent increase in kidney and stomach cancers in Bangladesh is a result of adulterated foods,” Dr. Edward Pallab Rozario, secretary of the Catholic bishops’ Healthcare Commission, told ucanews.com.
Children born to mothers who consumed contaminated food face risks of malnutrition, cancer and heart attacks, said Dr. Rozario, head of health services at Catholic charity Caritas Bangladesh.
“Everyone — consumers, traders and authorities — has responsibilities to ensure food safety, or not just our present but also our future generations face grave health risks,” he added.
Apart from legal recourse and social awareness, organic farming and foods are ways to get rid of food contamination, according to Sukleash George Costa, acting regional director of Caritas Rajshahi, which covers northern Bangladesh, the country’s agricultural hub.
“The Church and Caritas have always opposed and discouraged chemical use in agriculture and agricultural products, so everywhere we promote organic farming and foods, which can save the environment and human health,” Costa told ucanews.com.
“The government is positive and promotes organic farming and food enterprises because it is healthy and profitable, but a strong nexus of businesses, politicians and bureaucrats who make money from contaminated foods continue to oppose it.”