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The Financial Express

Food safety and socio-economic dimensions during Ramadan


Food safety and socio-economic dimensions during Ramadan

Eagerly awaited by Muslims all over the world, this ninth month of the Islamic calendar, the month of Ramadan is associated with pristine values that are synonymous with restraint, patience and commitment. The observance of this annual month of obligatory fasting is regarded as one of Islam's five pillars.

Ramadan is not only the month of spiritual reflection, improvement, increased devotion and worship but also the period when Muslims are expected to practise increased self-discipline and compassion and stay away from greed and bad practices. It is a month where one expects to see justice and compliance with rules, social and legal obligations.

In Bangladesh, a Muslim majority country, Ramadan has a special place. The entire Muslim population, of all ages, look forward not only to its religious connotations but also to its socio-economic connotations. It is this latter expectation that tends to impact on the perfection and expectations that ordinary people associate with this month of fasting.

Unfortunately, we have noticed that traders exploit this month by misusing different opportunities that emerge during the unique nature of Ramadan. They have no qualms in their greedy pursuit of profit. They do not hesitate to resort to underhand methods where they exploit consumer expectation for an extra bit of profit. Values related to principles are compromised and the ordinary consumer fleeced for whatever can be collected through inordinate pricing and the selling of adulterated products.

The last week has already seen an inordinate rise in price of essential, basic ingredients associated with the preparation of different kinds of items for Iftar. These include sugar, edible oil (required for frying different delicacies), aubergine, onion, garlic, potato, spices, green chili, vegetables, chickpea and green papaya. Cost of these items has climbed through the roof.

Surveys carried out by the print and electronic media in Shahjahanpur, Malibagh, Shantinagar, Karwan Bazar and Shyam Bazar have indicated that the price of aubergine has gone up by nearly 80 per cent over the last few days. Prices of gram, garlic, onion, cucumber, lemon and sugar have also taken a high-jump. There has also been a noticeable rise in the prices of eggs, fish, chicken, mutton and beef-- all essential sources of protein.

Mutton is now selling at around Taka 900 per kg, and beef at over Taka 600 per kg. The butchers have, of course, had no hesitation in blaming the rise in the cost of beef to lower supply of cows from across the border. Broiler chicken is selling at around Taka 160 per kg. Non-broiler local chicken is retailing at around Taka 300 to 350 per kg. The prices of fish per kg, other than Talapia, Pangash and Koi, have climbed over Taka 300. Ruhi and Katla are selling between Taka 300 and Taka 350 per kg. I have not included references to locally grown fruits -- bananas, green guavas, dates (partially imported to meet increased demand at this time), green cocoanuts and oranges -- as the rise in their prices are on an average more than 30 to 35 per cent.

When asked by the consumer as to why the prices have gone up so sharply, the regular answer is that the retailers should not be blamed if the wholesalers have raised the price. In turn, when the wholesalers are asked, they generally respond that they have been forced to raise the price because of the increase in the cost of transportation of the product from its source to the city. It is alleged that the price is also partially influenced by the increase in tolls which have to be paid by the middlemen to 'Parties' and 'Groups' for safe passage. One can only wonder whether the law enforcement people watching over the communication network are functioning as well as they are expected to do.

To this dynamics has been added another unfortunate aspect-- adulteration, the use of preservatives, fabric dyes, chemicals, formalin and carbide. In the recent past mobile food inspection teams appear to have identified some factories where unscrupulous businessmen are producing adulterated sub-standard vermicelli in unhygienic conditions and then flooding the city markets as well as rural haats and bazaars with this dangerous product. There have also been reports of such vermicelli being dried under the open sky in unclean places and later packed in colourful packets to draw the attraction of consumers in the rural areas.

There have also been reports of importers forming syndicates to adulterate milk powder and then selling to retailers who then pass it on to low quality bakeries, restaurants and hotels.

 Dishonest traders also appear to have no compunction in maltreating seasonal fruits to improve their appearance for the consumer. This is done without any respect for public health and the provisions set forth in the Consumer Rights Protection Act, 2009, Food Safety Act, 2013 and the Formalin Control Act, 2015. This is happening partially because there is very little organised monitoring of cheap food producers and food manufacturers in the country.

The relevant government authorities have claimed that they have already initiated efforts towards more effective surveillance of the situation and through the use of mobile courts have been imposing fines on those found guilty of adulteration. It is understood that the process has started whereby those enterprises involved with adulteration will lose their ability to manufacture the product.

One can only conclude that this is encouraging but this is really only touching the tip of the iceberg. They need to operate additional mobile courts to ensure that there is greater implementation of rules and regulations not only throughout Ramadan but also afterwards. This will require careful record keeping and documentation of inspection already carried out. It will require coordination among the different agencies.

However, these drives should not be arbitrary in character and should only be carried out by trained inspectors (able to detect and determine how much of extraneous chemical is present and whether it is harmful for humans) with the help of instruments that function properly (especially while checking for use of formalin). Authorities executing the Mobile Court Act facility also need to ensure that after verifying veracity of available evidence and while executing sentence, necessary scope of defence is provided to the accused so that there is no violation of rights as outlined in different Sections of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1898.

Food safety is of paramount importance for all of us. We must not forget that intake of unsafe food can cause serious diseases -- cancer that can affect the liver, intestinal tract infections and also acute diarrheal infections. The ICDDRB, an international health research organisation in Dhaka, has revealed that the "number of hospital visits per day for treatment of diarrhea due to food and water borne causes is very distressful". Apparently, food-borne and waterborne diseases affect more than a million people every year in Bangladesh.

Rigorous implementation of regulations and standards are vital if we are to expand, diversify and increase export of our food items abroad. This has already been exemplified by the fact that fish from Bangladesh is slowly regaining its export status in different markets in the European Union despite the prevailing after-effects of the Covid pandemic.

It is also understood that in the coming weeks there will be efforts undertaken to ensure chemical-free mango exports to the United Kingdom super-markets from different production points in Bangladesh. However, it is understood that this process might start after the lock-down on air travel is lifted to the UK because of the Coronavirus pandemic. The fruit will be sent there as air cargo. We have noticed that such   success came from mango farmers apparently starting to use the modern fruit bagging technology since 2016 for different kinds of mangoes growing at this time of the year. This enabled them to avoid the use of harmful insecticides. This is a particularly good step given the fact that our mangoes mature ahead of other areas and can therefore also get easier access to the European market. One needs to thank the FAO for assisting in this process.

This month of Ramadan can be our source of inspiration towards the process of helping others. In this context, it would be worthwhile to refer to the Consumers Protection Act, 2009 and the paradigm of punishable offences under this Act.

There is consensus that this includes (a) selling or offering for sale at a higher price than the price prescribed by any law or rule, any product, medicine or service; (b) knowingly selling or offering to sell any adulterated product; (c) deceiving people in general through false and untrue advertisement with the idea of selling a product; (d) using any false weight or measure of length and thereby defrauding a customer and (e) giving fewer products than advertised and paid for by the customer. A complaint with regard to any of these charges may be filed by any consumer or organisation working for consumer rights with the Directorate General, National Consumer Rights Protection Department.

We need to remember that food safety must be evaluated in terms of additional cost to consumers. It enjoys a sense of shared concern among both developing and developed countries because of the potential of contaminated food leading to outbreak of food-borne illness.

In this context, we also need to bear in mind that the ethos of Ramadan teaches us to work together for common benefit and welfare, irrespective of faith. Let us try to do just that.  

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.  [email protected]

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