The government has failed to form a food court and appoint food analysts in every district in order to check adulteration as per a High Court order issued more than three years ago.
LGRD Secretary Abu Alam Md Shahid Khan told The Daily Star straightaway it is not possible for the government to establish something like a food court following separation of the judiciary from the executive.
He however said the Ministry of Law might take steps to establish such courts through appointing judges on permission from the Supreme Court.
It is very difficult for the Ministry of LGRD and Cooperatives to appoint food analysts as well, as approval from the ministries of finance and public administration is required, he noted.
The LGRD secretary said his ministry has undertaken a big project to establish food testing laboratories in Dhaka and Chittagong by 2015 to monitor and maintain standard of food.
Abu Alam added a number of mobile courts are conducting drives against food adulteration in almost all the city corporations and punishing the offenders. The number of mobile courts, however, should be increased, he added.
Speaking anonymously, a law ministry high official said they have not taken any steps regarding food courts as the LGRD ministry can do it alone.
The official added the government may face contempt of court for not complying with the HC directive.
Following a writ petition by Human Rights and Peace for Bangladesh, an environment and rights organisation, the HC on June 1, 2009 directed the government to set up a food court and appoint sufficient food analysts and food inspectors in all the districts within two years.
The court also asked the government to submit a progress report in this regard by July 1, 2010.
Petitioners’ counsel Manzill Murshid said they would soon file a contempt of court petition with the HC against the officials concerned for not complying with the court’s directive.
He said the government has apparently taken no initiative to implement the HC directive.
Had the government set up food courts in every district, people responsible for adulterating food would be tried and punished duly and mobile courts would not be required in this regard, he observed.
Manzill Murshid said a few mobile courts are working for limited places in Dhaka, and therefore, the crime cannot be prevented everywhere in the country.
Mobile courts hand down short-term punishment to the offenders, which is not sufficient to prevent adulteration completely, he observed.
Alarmed by widespread food adulteration in the country, the food ministry has drafted a proposal to set up a single agency to fight the menace effectively from production to consumption.
If approved, the plan would replace the existing system of food quality control that involves as many as 15 ministries with 10 ministries and their agencies directly taking part in inspection and law enforcement.
“When I approached the prime minister this week on this issue, she asked me to turn in a formal proposal,” Food Minister Muhammad Abdur Razzaque told The Daily Star yesterday, adding the ministry would do so at the earliest.
Declining to share the draft with this correspondent before submitting it to the prime minister, Razzaque said, “Our aim is to establish a single authority with full power to address the menace. That agency will remain accountable to an assigned ministry.”
The minister, however, said entrusting an agency with fighting adulteration — like the Food and Drug Administration in the US — does not necessarily mean other government bodies should shrug off their responsibilities.
“We’d rather recommend the proposed agency get expertise of all relevant ministries and agencies and use all the lab facilities, no matter under whom those operate.”
The minister said the draft also has a list of laws that have been in effect since the Pakistan era and need updating.
Referring to the capital’s Malibagh kitchen market, declared formalin-free by Commerce Minister GM Quader on September 19, he said, “We must understand that keeping a single kitchen market formalin-free won’t do. All people of the country have the right to safe food.”
The Malibagh initiative was taken by the Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry.
“I come from a place [Tangail] where chemicals are applied at random to pineapples; people say traders even use burned Mobil for frying jilapi.
“We all know about the rampant use of formalin and chemical preservatives,” he said. “Something must be done and immediately.”
Unabated sales of adulterated foodstuffs posing high health risks worry consumers across the country.
The excessive use of chemicals like formalin, calcium carbide, pesticides and artificial growth regulators on a wide range of products from fruits to fish to vegetables keep consumers wonder where to buy safe food.
They have long been complaining about the use of formalin on fish and tomato, and applications of carbide and growth regulators on banana, pineapples and other fruits.
“I tend not to buy banana, pineapples these days for my daughter because of harmful chemicals they [producers, marketers] use to forcibly ripen and preserve those,” said SK Chowdhury, a resident in the city’s Dhanmondi area.
“We also feel unsafe while buying fish like rui, katla and mrigel as the fishmongers apply formalin to fishes.”
Agronomist Shahidul Islam, a consultant of UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), said environment pollution as well as the use of chemicals like formalin and carbide on food items poses serious health hazards to consumers.
Brac Executive Director Mahbub Hossain, also an analyst of farm economy and food security, told The Daily Star that while Bangladesh showed much prospect in ensuring availability of food and keeping the prices within purchasing ability of people, food adulteration has become a big threat to food security.
Under a project titled “Improving Food Safety, Quality and Food Control in Bangladesh”, the FAO two years ago assessed the capacity of the ministries and agencies involved in food inspection and enforcement.
The assessment revealed food inspection in Bangladesh is not based on risk assessment and inspection actions don’t cover the entire food chain.
Participants at a FAO-organised food safety stocktaking meeting noted that food standards are certified by Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institution.
The existing standards are to a large extent obsolete, quality oriented and overlapping and don’t cover the most common food products, they observed.
Limited coordination and communication between the enforcement agencies has been identified as one of the main food inspection challenges.
The lack of coordination between the agencies is considered a cause of both gaps in inspection and overlapping enforcement activities.