The National Food Safety Day was celebrated, for the second time, all over the country a few days ago. The purpose of celebrating this day was a call for providing safe food to everyone. In fact, National Food Safety Day has been observed in Bangladesh since last year. However, about four years back, the Bangladesh Food Safety Authority was established as a monitoring organisation. That means our Government has recognised that our food products are not safe. On the other way, the food we are consuming every day is more or less contaminated and can cause many acute and life-long diseases. We are not able to find our foods that will keep us safe. Our food products have become a threat to our lives once those are contaminated with harmful chemicals injurious to health. Due to the intake of chemicals mixed food items, we are constantly being affected by various health complexities.
I may be wrong, but, my understanding on ‘Safe Food’ and ‘Food Safety’ flows in two different directions. Safe food may be defined as the food that is not harmful to our health. It is safe to take and keeps us healthy. On the other hand, food safety gives us the guarantee that we will not suffer from any food crisis or scarcity. Honestly speaking, food safety bears the sentiment that the food is also safe. However, the first issue comes once we started facing problems with unsafe food items contaminated with various harmful chemicals. The second issue always remains there, though we are not much worried about our food safety.Four years have passed since I concluded my diplomatic life. I cannot remember whether or not the bizarre thought about contaminated food products have peeped into my mind during my stay abroad. I used to buy fruits, vegetables, fish, meat from the market and we took those. When we went to the market, we never thought that the food items in the market are mixed with chemicals or formalin or any other materials harmful to health. However, we know that it is necessary to add limited amount of preservative that does not have any harmful effects on health to conserve food items, especially for long time preservation. While living abroad, my wife and I had never suffered from any critical illness due to food.
But, within a year of our coming back to Bangladesh, we have started facing problems with the contaminated or chemicals mixed foods. My wife’s kidney is now in danger. She has also been suffering from electrolyte problem. Initially, we did not understand that fruits, vegetables, fish, meat, or other food products sold in the markets or chain shops are mixed with formalin or harmful chemicals in such a wide way. When we were able to realise, it has already damaged a lot. Now, my wife, by the grace of medicine and doctors, sometimes feels better and sometimes he takes refuge in the hospital once getting sick. We have left the habit of taking foreign fruits; though, occasionally, we buy local bananas, guava or papaya. Knowing everything, who wants to take this poison? At the same time, we cannot survive without balanced diets.
It is known from a study of the Atomic Energy Commission that there is lead in sweet water fish, lead and cadmium in imported Hilsa fish. Even, excessive level of lead was found in some branded milk powder. Presence of antibiotics and growth hormones in poultry and lead in poultry feed is not a new story. Uses of various chemicals especially insecticides and ripening substances by the fruit and vegetable growers is a common practice in Bangladesh. Even they do not know the dose of pesticide while using. In addition, formalin has been used in all categories of food items including fruits, meat and fish. They are hankers after profit, least bothered for others’ lives.
One day, one of my friends asked me to write something on this issue in the newspaper. I replied him politely that no one can cure this deep rooted practice through writings. Only those who are involved in the entire process can only solve this, if they are willing to do so. I informed him that I wrote about this in two local dailies last year. Perhaps, nobody has noticed and nothing has so far happened. Religious teachings do not even attract non-believers. We have no way unless those who are doing these inhuman activities make a stop willingly. It seems very difficult to have a positive result showing them the path of morality or humanity. Meaning of these revelations bears no impact on them. They only know money. Then, what is the benefit of making laws? Do they care? All tactics to manage the situation are at their fingertips. However, my friend eventually gave me a suggestion. The advice is not so much simple, but it can be done. According to him, if there would be any injection that would once be pushed into the blood of those people, they would forget thinking of using any harmful chemicals in the food products forever. His suggestion forced me a lot to think. We are all handicaps at their hands, the law is in their captivity, the values are groaning. Indeed, to save the people of the country especially the future generation, we have no choice but to do something.
We all know how serious contaminated and chemical mixed foods are for our health. These foods easily cause many acute diseases from diarrhoea to cancer. Lack of proper monitoring system and inadequate facilities to control the on-going contamination of food products put the people in the danger zone. Certainly, we are very much worried about our health. Bangladesh Government is well aware of this and has already announced its war against food contamination and adulteration. The Government has established Bangladesh Food Safety Authority (BFSA) in 2015. There are also 71 courts across the country that work under the Food Safety Act 2013. Sometimes, we see mobile courts are run by the magistrates and they try the offenders selling rotten meat, dead chicken, poisonous chemicals mixed food products, etc.
By this time, the Government of Bangladesh has taken a number of initiatives and has more plans for future. However, concerned authorities may also like to look into the following issues - (a) awareness at the producers level as well as vendors level should be created all over the country to stop unethical tendency for profit; (b) import of formalin and other chemicals used in food items should be controlled by the authority; (c) BFSA should be well equipped in respect of manpower and modern laboratory facilities; (d) necessary test might be performed at the field level (whole sale market where producers sell their products) as well as outlets level (retailers); (e) necessary laws should be made and implemented; (f) our media, both print and electronic, should come forward to contribute in awareness building in their own way; (g) concerned Government ministries (like Information, Agriculture, Fisheries, Livestock, Industry, Commerce, Home, etc.) might play an important role in the sectors like publicity for awareness among people and controlling utilisation of formalin and all chemicals in food products; (h) as citizens of the society as well as human beings, the producers and sellers should have the obligations not to play with people’s health anymore; (i) preservatives used in our food processing factories need proper monitoring; (j) our chambers of commerce situated in all districts and in Dhaka could be given the responsibilities to collaborate other agencies working in this sector; (k) organise proper skill development training for the officials who work in monitoring and controlling the safety of our food items; (l) local civil society can play significant role in awareness building as well as maintain liaison with concerned government agencies whenever necessary and (m) provide some incentives to the producers and the retailers to encourage producing/selling safe food products.A healthy nation can only be built by its healthy peoples. To have a healthy population, we need to ensure production and supply of safe food items to every citizen. If a country’s peoples are healthy, they can also save a lot of money by reducing cost for treatment and other health related expenses. Our authorities concerned would, of course, come forward to ensure safe foods for our people for their healthy survival. In fact, that is the burning question of today.
The writer is a former Ambassador and Secretary