Food Quality, Safety, and Security in Bangladesh

S.M. Masud Rana (Robi)

6 February, 2019 12:00 AM printer

Children younger than five in Bangladesh are at the greatest risk from eating unsafe food, which causes at least 18 per cent of deaths in that age group and 10 per cent of adults’ deaths, according to a 2006 study cited by the US-based University of Minnesota’s Centre for Animal Health and Food Safety. Many farmers in the country use an excessive amount of pesticide in agricultural products hoping to boost output, while ignoring the serious health impacts on consumers, despite repeated warnings from the government about this issue; lack of coordination among public agencies has hampered effective control on the trend. In 2009, Bangladesh’s parliament passed the country’s first consumer protection law covering food safety and security. New standards included requiring food labels, creating safety testing standards, monitoring products for chemical and microbial hazards, and holding producers accountable by levying fines for violations.

This law joined several others aimed at regulating food quality: Bangladesh Pure Food Ordinance (1959), Fish and Fish Product Rules (1997) and the Radiation Protection Act (1987).

Street vendors operating small, unregulated carts feed millions of people daily, offering no guarantee of safety, with approximately one in six people becoming ill after eating out. Food safety is a crucial issue in Bangladesh. As the agricultural production already meets up the current demand for daily major foods, in some cases it is already surplus. So, there is no issue of food scarcity now. But, unfortunately the indiscriminate use of pesticides, toxin, food additives and preservatives may be the future threat to food safety in the country.

Scant research information is available in this special section of toxicant in agricultural products and their quality evaluation because of less research and monitoring activities. Most of the Bangladeshi researchers – both in the country and abroad – are focused on the so called trendy research like Biotechnology, Molecular biology, Microbiology etc. As a result, the “quality and safety evaluation of agricultural products” gets least priority in current research world. To improve food safety in Bangladesh, Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN (FAO) established a “National Food Safety Laboratory” in the Institute of Public Health at Dhaka in 2012 as a pilot research project. They already reported many banned pesticides like “DDT, Aldrin, Chlordane, Heptachlor and others” in fruits, vegetables, fishes and milk products. Those pesticides are present “at 3 to 20 times the limits set by the European Union”, according to the summary of the lab findings.

Most of the spices become adulterated by heavy metals, like lead in turmeric and chilli powder. Chromium, Arsenic contamination in recent days is also alarming in such food stuffs. These may cause liver damage, kidney failure and cancer. Fruits and vegetables are the main source of nutrition. But, these products in the market now become the least options for the daily consumers. Only city dwellers buy these products in case of no alternatives. Due to food safety issue, you may get the ‘unique’ apple in the street market of Bangladesh having long shelf life without any change. This is really alarming! Even you are going to be a fearer to the most popular fruit Mango due to the possible contamination of formalin, a potential toxicant. Thus malnutrition is associated with food safety.

Consumption of adulterated food may cause food poisoning (may be serious in some cases) and may lead to fatal diseases. As a result conscious consumers avoid the source of nutrition due to the possibility of food toxicity. Food is a significant reason for the considerable number of diseases in the entire world. Bangladesh, a third world developing country of South Asia, is not an exception in this case. Consumption of unsafe food is a serious threat to public health in Bangladesh for last couple of decades. A survey conducted by the Institute of Nutrition and Food Science, Dhaka University, in early 1980s had revealed that inadequate diets and intake of adulterated foods are responsible for the malnutrition of 60 per cent of the people of Bangladesh. The Institute of Public Health (IPH) in Dhaka and the World Health Organisation (WHO) in their joint study of 1994 on food adulteration tested 52 street vendors and found that, all of the vendors’ food samples were contaminated with different types of disease breeding micro-organisms. Another study of 2003 conducted by the same organisations as above in the capital city revealed that amongst 400 sweetmeats, 250 biscuits, 50 breads and 200 ice creams samples, 96 per cent of sweetmeats, 24 per cent of biscuits, 54 per cent of breads, and 59 per cent of ice creams were adulterated. This 2003 study found that over the preceding decades, some 50 per cent of the food samples tested in IPH laboratory were adulterated.

Similarly, a recent official statistics published by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MOHFW) of the of the Government of Bangladesh (GoB) reveals that nearly half of the food samples have been found adulterated tested by the IPH from 2001 to 2009. This GoB statistics indirectly demonstrates that the situation of the prevailing food adulteration concerns in Bangladesh has not improved over the past 10 years. Adulterated food has many deadly affects. The National Taskforce on Food Adulteration (NTFS) made by the GoB find out that adulterated foodstuffs each year causes various food-borne illnesses, including diarrhoea, malnutrition and other diseases leading to death of many people in Bangladesh. Especially children are more vulnerable than adults as unsafe food is a major cause of child mortality.

Universally it is accepted that unsafe food is an important factor of malnutrition which causes various types of serious illnesses including diarrhoea along with other permanent consequences for the human body. Hence, Bangladesh which has abundant adulterated foods cannot deny the contribution of unsafe foods for malnutrition. In a recent study recognised by the GoB portrayed the depressing picture of child mortality. Pointing the forefinger to the malnutrition as a significant cause of child mortality, this report mentioned that in every 19 children 1 child die before they complete five years. Given the numerous deaths and enormous sufferings of people caused by adulterated foods in Bangladesh, the regulators should not be allowed to avoid their responsibility to protect the people from such serious harm caused by the adulterated foodstuffs available to consumers. This is because the contribution of legal and regulatory failures in combating these human sufferings must be given due emphasis in any quest for a durable remedy against this evil. The following parts and sections of this paper will endeavour to assert the key problems of food safety issues prevailing in Bangladesh along with their specific impact on public health. The loopholes of the Food Safety Regulatory Regime of Bangladesh (FSRRB) that are letting the entire food safety problems happen will be analysed with necessary recommendations.

It is commonly accepted that a proper and effective regulatory framework should be based on transparency and accountability. This is because regulatory transparency engages the whole of a country’s governance infrastructure. A regulatory body should be transparent both externally and internally.  The PFO 1959 does not include any provision regarding the decisions making of the National Food Safety Advisory Council. Regulatory bodies under the Food Safety Regulatory Regime of Bangladesh are terribly bureaucratic. For instance, section 18 of the CRPA 2009 has established the Directorate of National Consumer Rights Protection (DNCRP) to administer the functions of this statute. But section 71 of the CRPA 2009 stipulates that an aggrieved person needs to obtain permission from the DNCRP to sue against the culprit. This unnecessary bureaucracy has ultimately made such an important consumer protection law ineffective.

 To ensure consumer rights effectively in Bangladesh it is necessary to establish a separate consumer court to deal with cases of violation of consumers’ rights. Empowering the consumer is also important so that the aggrieved consumers can individually sue against the violators. Civil society and media people should come forward to create awareness about the rights of consumer. Last but not least, leaders and distinguished persons of the society should participate in the campaign to increase the awareness of the consumer and alert the government.


The writer is author and banker. He can be reached at: @[email protected]