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To be on the road to food safety


To be on the road to food safety

Mobile courts' drives against adulterated and unsafe foods have become almost a routine, albeit hackneyed. Magistrates under whom the raids are conducted slap hefty fines and at times seal off factories ---mostly in cases of illegal and clandestine operation. Elements involved in the criminal practices are even sent to prison but after serving their short terms, they come out and organise the same illegal business.

If the drive against unsafe foods is meant to improve the quality of foods and standardise manufacture, preparation and processing of ingredients and the finished products, it has hardly proved to be a deterrent to the malpractices. A drive against factories, bakeries, restaurants and production units of bottled water and beverages acts more as a cosmetic surgery than a complete dissection or resection of the infected organ. Popular and well-known companies and outlets are also found to compromise on standard practice and quality of ingredients obviously with an ulterior motive of making extra profit.

The impression is that availability of apparently good looking food items is enough for a country that has so long struggled to overcome its extreme food shortage; so the setting of a benchmark for foods may still wait. On that count, it is more a psychological issue than adoption of a way of everyday life. Considering the country's increasing production of the staple and particularly vegetables, fruits and fish, there is no doubt that it is well past the take-off point for concentrating on ensuring without fail the quality of the eatables.

The country has already done some ground work in that direction too. In 2009, the National Food Safety Laboratory (NFSL) was established as a reference laboratory with help from the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). It has a capacity for detecting 100 microbiological and chemical contaminants. This central testing facility has developed a network of 20 more food analysis laboratories all across the country to facilitate testing of foods. Capabilities of five other testing laboratories including the Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institution (BSTI) have also been enhanced.

All this is certainly a step in the right direction because the testing of foods is now of international standard. The arrangement of such facilities point to the fact that the authorities concerned have taken enough preparation for identifying not only the harmful pathogenic microorganisms but also the chemicals and carcinogenic agents that, when consumed with foods, can cause chronic and fatal diseases. A report released by the Poribesh Bachao Andolon in 2014, maintained that 7.9 million people in South Asia die of non-contagious diseases every year and responsible for this is nothing but food adulteration.

Food adulteration can be both unintentional and intentional. It can happen out of ignorance or a lack of awareness. Farmers use chemical fertiliser and pesticide often without knowing the exact amount to be applied. Also the timing of the use of such inputs is very important but they are not adequately informed and taught to apply those properly. So they use both chemical fertiliser and pesticide indiscriminately and the latter only days before harvesting. This is dangerous for consumers of vegetables and fruits in particular.

If these are not quite intentional, there are intentional malpractices such as application of calcium carbide, ethephon, formalin, industrial dyes and sweeteners. These substances are used both for prolonging shelf life and enhance colour and lustre of vegetables and fruits. There is a whole range of food items that get contaminated by carcinogenic or toxic chemicals at the hands of dishonest traders. The controversy over presence of antibiotic, lead and cadmium in pasteurised packet milk of different companies did not end in a clear answer to the issue. This is despite the fact that the NFSL is there. Also, the results of test on samples sent to a Chennai laboratory were not made clear to the public.

Adulteration of food at the grassroots level is difficult to check unless growers, producers and consumers alike are made aware of the harms caused. Of course, a mass awareness campaign should be carried on a sustained basis and a civil resistance movement ought to complement this exercise. That the right to food and safe food forms the basis of right to life in an extended sense must be the central theme of the campaign. This concept should be presented in a simple and attractive package to all the stakeholders from the farm and factory level to the dining table.

So far as the culprits who intentionally make food hazardous for human consumption should be dealt with an iron hand. Perhaps tougher laws have to be enacted in order to punish these criminals. There is no point dilly-dallying on setting a clear and transparent standard for food safety. Its maintenance depends on mental change of all, but particularly of the authorities concerned. They must throw a clear message about their intention of keeping the nation safe from contaminated and substandard foods in order to ensure healthy growth of the future generations. Future citizens' healthy physical growth will act as the determinant of their sound mental development as well.

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