Away Our Health
of the biggest casualties of urbanisation in this country
has been the quality of life, a large part of which includes
good health. With a culture of malpractice seeping into every
sector and level it is hardly surprising that it has reached
the most important of our basic needs--food. With ineffective,
outdated laws, lack of enforcement and institutional corruption
there is an overwhelming indifference to consumer rights and
public health. Dishonest food manufacturers and traders are
having a free reign in the market adding harmful substances,
selling contaminated food or tampering with the original content
of the food item. The government has various bodies to control
food quality. But why aren't they doing their job?
now and then we are shocked by media reports of ingenious
forms of adulteration of food that we consume regularly. According
to IPH (Institute of Public Health) more than fifty percent
of food samples they have tested are adulterated. Food colouring
is a form of adulteration. A toxic artificial dye is used
to colour fruits and vegetables such as melons and tomatoes
to give them a rich colour.
Ironically even food colour is being adulterated. Substandard
food colour is finding its way into many types of food. This
includes the reddish jelapi, and the saffron beguni,
peaju or alur chop. Candy, chips, ice cream,
chewing gum and even biryani may contain large amounts
of poor quality food colour. Textile dyes such as carbide
and ethopene are also being used to colour different iftar
items to attract customers. Urea fertiliser is used while
frying muri to whiten it. Cyanide is used to give
mustard oil extra bite.
dust is mixed with chilly powder and a poisonous yellow colourant
is mixed with turmeric powder to make it more yellow. Water
and salt are also mixed with these spices to increase weight.
Mangoes, jackfruit, lychees, watermelon, pineapple, papaya
and bananas are artificially ripened using a carcinogenic
chemical called ethylene oxide. In bananas, another chemical
called Calcium Carbide is used which happens to be a sprayed
Acetile-gas that releases heat, says Dr. Golam Mowlah, Ph.D.,
the Professor and Director General of Institute of Nutrition
and Food Science, Dhaka University.
should avoid eating fruits and vegetables which are not seasonal"
says Golam Sarwar, Public Analyst of DCC's Public Health Laboratory
(PHL), "as the chemicals are used only when the fruits
are not seasonal, because chemicals also cost. It is also
better to avoid grind spices or grind it in the grinder, which
is available in the kitchen markets.
a vegetable based fat used for cooking is an example of one
of the worst cases of adulteration. "Our stomach's temperature
is 37 degrees Celsius and the melting point of dalda
is 54 degree Celsius. Thus there is no way that dalda
can be absorbed by the body," says Sarwar.
you think fish is a healthy option think again. Many fish
sellers spray fish with 'formalin' -- a chemical usually used
for preservation of tissues. This chemical is mainly used
with imported fish and it makes the fish stiff and keeps them
looking 'fresh' for a longer duration.
has found that there is 'ecoli' in almost all our food items.
Ecoli can be fecal, skin, hair etc. If proper sanitation codes
of conducts are to be followed, these forms of contamination
must be totally absent in all food items.
oil that is so commonly used to deep fry items should only
be used once but many food vendors and restaurants recycle
burnt oil. Once the oil is used for cooking, it becomes oxidised.
The more the oil is used, the more pre-oxide is created which
is really harmful for the body. This gets more poisonous with
has a standard but it must be free from adulteration, artificial
colour and contamination says Dr. Mowlah. "There is a
sanitary code, the Good Manufacturing Procedure (GMP), which
is usually used in manufacturing items. This practice can
also be used for food items and should be strictly followed
as much as possible. There is also a Hazard Analysis Critical
Control Point (HACCP) code which deals with maintaining microbial
quality control. This too is a part of the sanitary code or
Good Manufacturing Practice".
main question is why will we go for deviation from the natural
process?" says Mowlah. "We have to start to go for
organic food. We have to make propaganda against the artificial
of maintaining food quality is a little confusing considering
the fact that various government bodies handle the different
categories of food and food testing. This includes DCC's public
health department, BSTI (Bangladesh Standards Testing Institution)
which frames standards of food products and also conducts
testing and the Institute of Public Health. Apart from that
various ministries have jurisdiction over various food items.
For example, the Ministry of Fisheries and Livestock monitors
fish and meat quality, while food grains are under the Ministry
of the responsibility, however, for most of the monitoring
and control of food quality, seems to lie with the Dhaka City
Corporation (DCC). Apart from issuing trade licenses to manufacturers,
the DCC through its Public Health Laboratory conducts testing
of samples after which it can take punitive action against
the offenders. Samples include packaged, bottled or canned
food both local and foreign as well as food sold on the streets.
Each of the ten zones that the DCC deals with has a team of
one assistant officer, two inspectors and two sample takers.
These teams survey the market and pick out items suspected
of adulteration. The samples are then tested in the DCC lab
and the public analyst compiles the findings. Every few weeks
the public analyst submits a statement of the findings to
the DCC and based on this the inspectors serve show cause
notices to the offending party. If the offender does not take
heed of the notice, the inspector, through the magistrate
can file a case and a penalty is imposed. All this sounds
like a foolproof system for catching sellers of adulterated
food but there are several flaws in this mechanism as DCC's
public analyst Md. Golam Sarwar points out making it easy
for the culprits to go on with their fraudulent business.
of all the Pure Food Act 1959 that prosecutes offenders of
this kind has not been amended for the last 12 years. The
penalty under this Act for food adulteration is a ludicrously
low amount of Tk 200. "We have submitted a proposal for
the penalty section (of the Ordinance) to increase the fine
from Tk 5,000 to Tk 5 lakh," says Sarwar. "Unless
the fine is high enough to scare the offenders, such laws
cannot act as deterrents". The last time the Ordinance
was amended was 1993. The Prime Minister at a cabinet meeting
on November 1 endorsed the draft of the proposed Bangladesh
Pure Food (Amendment) Act 2004.
ordinance does not include many new products that are now
available in the market but were non-existent in 1959. This
includes the wide range of junk food that is so popular amongst
present generation consumers. Though use of formalin in fish
is a well-known phenomenon PHL is not doing anything about
it. "The Pure Food Ordinance 1959 doesn't have fish as
a food item. So, we cannot go for prosecuting traders involved
in mixing formalin with fish even if we manage to get hold
of them," Sarwar, Chief Public Analyst of PHL, points
having an intimidating law is hardly enough to deter unscrupulous
traders from tampering with food if the monitoring system
is not efficient. "Food adulteration can be due to many
things", explains Sarwar, "it can be through mixing
in harmful chemicals or colourants, due to pesticide residue
or microbial contamination". To find out the exact component
being mixed or causing the contamination requires sophisticated
testing with state of the art equipment which the present
Public Health Lab does not have says Sarwar. The lab for instance,
has no facility to test drinking water or the chemical colours
used in various items. He estimates that such equipment would
cost around 20 to 25 crore taka but it is an investment that
is crucial to ensure food quality. Training of lab workers
is also important and Sarwar believes that such personnel
should be trained abroad. "Technical expertise and the
lab facilities must be upgraded," he remarks.
the DCC has a major share of the responsibility to monitor
food quality in the city and punish offenders, the public
analyst feels that it must be given more attention by the
ministry to make sure that the system of quality control works.
"The mayor and other officials must give priority to
the food control activities". Co-ordination among various
government bodies that deal with food quality is also needed.
At present various bodies deal with different food categories.
The DCC Health department is concerned with food items sold
within the city while BSTI issues approval seals to products
including bottled water. But BSTI tests only the first batch
of a product. They don't check the consequent batches which
may not maintain the same quality as the first batch. If the
DCC health department had the authority and capability to
conduct continuous testing of following batches after trade
licenses are given out (which the DCC does after approval
from BSTI) then there is less scope of substandard food being
sold legally in the market. Golam Sarwar suggests that a DCC
food-testing certificate be made compulsory for all traders
of food items. "Testing can be done 3 times; first when
the trade license is applied for, secondly to monitor the
production and for a third time when the license needs to
be renewed". In the case of imported food items, says
Sarwar, often traders bring in products from abroad through
LCs with banks and then the food items are kept in the bank's
storage. There is no monitoring of the storage facilities
and often the goods lie in the storage rooms for months exceeding
expiry dates. Once the traders pay off the money to the banks
the goods are released and sold in the market with no control
over their quality.
Standards and Testing Institution (BSTI), the national standards
body, is an autonomous organisation under the Ministry of
Industries. BSTI performs the task of formulation of national
standards of industrial, food and chemical products. Quality
control of these products is done according to Bangladesh
Standards. Till date BSTI has come up with over 1800 national
standards of various products adopting more than 132 International
Standards (i.e.ISO) and food standards set by the Food and
Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
the quality of commodities including food items for local
consumption, which applies both for export and import. Currently,
142 products are under compulsory certification marks scheme
of BSTI including 54 agricultural and food items.
items that are subject to compulsory certification marks are
: pineapple juice, chillies whole and ground, turmeric powder,
wheat bran, whole milk powder and skimmed milk powder, white
bread, biscuits, lozenges, tea, fruit squashes, jam, jelly
and marmalade, fruit vinegar( sirka), butter, soyabean oil,
sugar, flour, fruit or vegetable juice, carbonated beverages,
fruit syrup, honey, liquid glucose, dextrose monohydrate,
toffee, canned and bottled fruit, fruit cordial, sauce(fruit
and vegetables), tomato juice, tomato paste, pickle, concentrated
fruit juice, tomato ketchup, canned pineapple, infant milk
food, butter oil and ghee, mustard oil, noodles, iodised salt,
palm oil, drinking water, natural mineral water, ice cream,
chips/crackers, laccha semai, pasteurised milk, soft
drink powder, condensed milk and so on.
essentials that may be adulterated and contaminated are included
in the BSTI mandatory list," says ABM Abdul Haq Chowdhury,
Director General (DG) of BSTI.
commodities like food colour is excluded due to not having
quality machinery for testing," adds the DG.
also made it mandatory to mention six specific facts regarding
the product on the package. This includes the date of production,
date of expiry (best before use), net contents or weight,
address of the producers or marketing companies, maximum retail
price (MRP) and the ingredients.
have a right to know what is inside the product," says
Chowdhury. "There are instances of companies stating
inflated weights or quantities of the product than what is
to BSTI sources some companies import expired ketchup and
food products but because the address of these importers opened
L/Cs under false address.
points out that there are also instances where the media is
allowing advertisement of products, the certificates of which
have been cancelled by BSTI. Certificates of condensed milk
manufacturers for example, have been cancelled by BSTI whereas
the media is allowing advertisement of these products ignoring
need to be conscious and aware about their health; we cannot
simply take whatever is produced, even BSTI seals are printed
without our approval, but we have no strong laws or punishment
against the culprits," says the DG.
standards of products but they cannot enforce the standard
in the market. BSTI collects random samples from the factories
and also buys products from the market to test. If they find
sub-standard product they do not have the power to take action
against the company or the industry.
Ordinance 1985 has been amended to Bangladesh Standards and
Testing Institution (BSTI) (amendment) Act 2003 for consumers'
protection against low quality products. Under the BSTI amendment
Act 2003, BSTI inspectors have been included in the mobile
court team along with Dhaka City Corporation (DCC) inspectors
under the Home ministry.
to a BSTI press release, from October 17 to October 28 BSTI
fined Tk. 6,91,000 for keeping adulterated products like biscuits,
oil, ghee, laccha semai, lozenges, drinking water,
bread and also filed cases against the owners of the shops
in 1953, the Institute of Public Health (IPH) organises its
activities of quality control of drugs, food and water, production
of vaccines, intravenous fluids, antisera and diagnostic reagents,
diagnosis of infectious diseases and related research facilities.
is formed to assist the government to prevent and control
major health hazards caused by contaminated and adulterated
food and water. Besides this it organises training programmes
in the field of diagnosis, control and prevention of infectious
diseases and food and water safety. It also conducts various
research activities in related fields of public health, and
to collaborate and co-operate with other national, international
organisations and agencies in the promotion of public health.
don't collect samples of food ourselves. Sanitary inspectors
in pouroshobhas and districts send samples, which
the inspectors suspect as adulterated or contaminated. IPH
sends back these test reports to the district civil surgeon
and pouroshobha chairman," says Amirul Islam,
Director of IPH.
107 food items of which almost all items are either adulterated
by mixing low quality products or contaminated by using toxic
chemicals, according to the findings of IPH.
consumer rights protection has to be made popular and effective.
The CAB (Consumers Association of Bangladesh), the only private
organisation working in this arena, has been lobbying for
the last ten years for an effective law that would enable
the government to prosecute the crime of food adulteration.
The law titled Consumers Rights Protection Act, which was
basically drafted by CAB, has already been approved in principle
by the cabinet. "The file is now lying with the Commerce
ministry from where it will go to the Law ministry and then
it will be examined by the parliamentary committee before
it is finally approved by the parliament and made into an
act," informs Quazi Faruque, general secretary of the
CAB. Faruque is hopeful that fighting adulteration of food
will be a lot easier once the proposed act comes into effect.
health effects of having such adulterated food have not been
researched but health experts agree that over prolonged periods
such consumption amounts to slow poisoning. Many of these
substances are cancer causing and almost all of them have
adverse effects on the digestive system affecting the liver,
heart and other vital organs. In a scenario where the penalty
for such crimes of adulteration is either negligible or unenforceable
and where substandard food has become the norm rather than
the exception, the public is powerless and vulnerable. The
government, with enough political will, has all the means
to bring about change in the quality of food and therefore
AVIK SANWAR RAHMAN
and IMRAN H. KHAN
(R) thedailystar.net 2004