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Monday, July 18, 2011

Authorities lack capacity to enforce food safety laws

Khursheed Jahan

Nutritionist Khursheed Jahan tells New Age

by Shahidul Islam Chowdhury

RELEVANT authorities lack the capacity to enforce laws and regulations in ensuring food safety, says Khursheed Jahan of the Institute of Nutrition and Food Science under Dhaka University.

Most of the importers, producers and sellers of food items continue to repeat the offences for what they have been penalised in the past, she said in an exclusive interview with New Age on Tuesday.

‘The government must bring the food producers, public or private, importers and sellers within the legal framework,’ she added.

A medical graduate, Khursheed Jahan said most people in the low-, lower-middle- and middle-income brackets were struggling to ensure even two square meals a day amidst a sustained surge in the prices of essential commodities.

Nearly 40 per cent of the under-5 children are suffering from nutrition deficiency and 40 per cent of the adult population is suffering from energy deficiency, she said. ‘It is dangerous for a nation.’

People are increasingly becoming dependent on mushrooming roadside shops, which are set up under an open sky and serve food prepared in unhygienic condition, said Khursheed Jahan, who obtained a postgraduate degree in public from Harvard University.

As a result, viral hepatitis, gastrointestinal problem, lever and kidney failure, dementia, diarrhoea, acute food poisoning and other food-borne diseases have become widespread, she added.

Excerpts:


What is your assessment on the current state of food safety in Bangladesh?

Many surveys on nutrition have been conducted in the past 40 years. Each of these surveys show deficiency disorder in people as they are not maintaining required food intake. About 40 per cent of the under-5 children suffer from nutrition deficiency and 40 per cent of the adult population suffers from energy deficiency. It is dangerous for a nation.

A human being requires a balanced diet of 2,150 to 2,200 calories every day. About 60 per cent should come from carbohydrate, 12 to 14 per cent protein and the rest should be fat. Now, 75 to 80 per cent of the total calorie intake comes from carbohydrate as rice is a staple food in Bangladesh. Most people in Bangladesh cannot afford vegetable, fruits and animal protein and fat because of limited purchasing power.

Most people in the low, lower-middle- and middle-income groups struggle to ensure two proper meals a day, let alone three quality meals, due to soaring prices of essentials. They take whatever they can manage. Many children do not get proper breakfast before going to school.

In many families, busy parents cannot manage time to prepare snacks for school-going children. Those who can afford give money to their children to buy calorie- and fat-dense junk food from school canteen. These are not balanced diet on any consideration.

That’s how people’s food habit is changing.

Another important thing is that children cannot manage time to play at open spaces. As such, they have become dependent on television, computer, internet, mobile phone for entertainment. In fact, most of them do not lead an active life.

Poorer sections of society, especially the children, have to bear a double burden. Many of them take one meal a day and are heavily dependent on street food. People taking sugarcane juice and sliced fruits and vegetables including papaya, pineapple, watermelon, cucumber and carrot are common scene in cities. Sellers of these products use dirty utensils, knife, bucket and glasses. They do not wash their hands properly and many of them spread pathogenic bacteria from skin infections.

Middle-class people are becoming dependent on mushrooming roadside shops, which are set up under an open sky and serve food prepared in unhygienic condition.

That’s why viral hepatitis, gastrointestinal problem, lever and kidney failure, dementia, diarrhoea, acute food poisoning and other food-borne diseases have become widespread.


How do soaring food prices adversely affect food safety in general and level of nutrition in particular?

Certainly. People compromise on both the quantity and quality of food due to soaring prices of essential commodities including rice, flour, vegetables, fish, meat, fruits and milk. Thousands families cannot afford two meals a day or vegetables, fish, meat, fruits and milk regularly in their menu. They are becoming dependent on alternative and unsafe food. That’s how soaring prices of essentials are compounding chronic energy deficiency among people in general and low-income people in particular.

What role should the state play to ensure food security and safety?
The government should take pragmatic steps to increase the purchasing power of the people. It should also make food available at affordable prices and ensure the quality of food. Sustainable distribution chains with storage capacity in remote districts are also essential for ensuring food security.

How widespread do you think adulteration has become?
Adulteration was there in the past but now it has become extensive. For example, applying calcium carbide for ripening green mangos is very common every summer. Applying colours, essences and taste enhancers, including sodium salt in chips are common. The paediatric units of different hospitals are getting more patients with gastrointestinal and other problems.

How severe is the impact of rampant use of chemical pesticide and fattener in growing crops, vegetables and fruits?
Now, almost all growers apply chemicals as pesticides and fatteners—from the very beginning of plantation to harvesting. The government agencies conduct drives in name only. Many government employees and officials do not have proper knowledge and training to stop the use of chemicals as pesticides and fatteners. The government needs to establish a toxicity testing laboratory under a university to properly face the hazard.

How about artificial food?
Supply of artificial food including juice, jelly and carbonated drinks are also common. Producers of these products apply flavour and low-cost textile colour in foods that make children hyperactive. Many of them suffer from hypertension. In fact, additional colour in food is not good even if the colour is food-grade.

What is your view about the quality of packaging? Are they really food-grade?
Food-grade packaging and coating are very important for maintaining the quality of food in general and the pre-processed and pre-packed food in particular. Another important aspect is shelf life of a product. Unfortunately, many big department stores here do not properly maintain shelf life of products, let alone quality of packaging. The government agencies are not properly taking care of the issues of packaging and shelf life. So consumers must check whether the packaging is scratched or the composition of a product is right or the product is damp.

What is your view about genetically modified food and hybrid food?
Generally nutritional values are kept intact in hybrid foods. But we need to be careful about genetically modified food.

Do you think there is a necessity for investing in ensuring food safety and nutrition?
The authorities need to take food security and food safety in consideration together. So quality food must be made available at an affordable price for people in general and low-income people in particular.

What is the current state of laboratory facilities and research on food safety in Bangladesh?
A very limited number of tests and researches are done here on food safety. The government should invest more in research.

You are for establishing a laboratory under a university. How would you evaluate the performance of the Bangladesh Standards Testing Institution and its laboratory in ensuring food safety?
It does some tests. Does it really do all tests necessary for ensuring food safety when chemical contamination, pollution and adulteration are rampant? That’s why I feel there is the necessity for establishing a central toxicological laboratory preferably under a university.

Why under a university?
For credibility of the tests as most public universities still do credible tests and research works.

There are laws on food safety. Are they enforced effectively?
There is enforcement in name only. Food producers and shops continue to repeat the offences for what they were punished or fined by magistrates during anti-adulteration drives. Thousands of street shops are still unregistered. The government must bring the food producers, public or private, importers and sellers within the legal framework.

Do you think climate change has had adverse impacts on food safety?
Draught, salinity intrusion into soil and inland waters, no matter surface or underground water, and stagnation of waters for longer period adversely affect food safety and security.

How would you evaluate the preparation for emergency situations?
There is hardly any mechanism to ensure food security let alone food safety in
emergency situations. We must develop a mechanism for the people in disaster-
prone areas.

New Age 19-05-011

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