Draft food safety law: a few thoughtsby Md Khoshrumiah Chowdhury
THE incumbent government has taken an initiative to pass a law in parliament with the objective to ensure food safety. The draft of the law called Food Safety Bill 2013 has already been approved by the cabinet. Different media, print and electronic, reported it, attaching a lot of importance to it. Many of them have published editorials on the proposed law. Overall, there is a certain degree of mass awareness in the country about the danger of food adulteration which may have mounted pressure on the government to take some steps, including enacting the law, in order to prevent the menace.
It may be pertinent to mention here that there are many authorities under different ministries in the country to check production, import and marketing of adulterated food items. The Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institution under the industry ministry is there to ensure quality of any goods, including food, available in the country. Also, there are different local government institutions like city corporations, municipalities and union parishads to monitor if any food item injurious to human health is on sale in the markets under their respective jurisdiction. The health directorate also has some responsibilities to prevent anything hazardous to public health from being marketed here. However, perhaps, to prove the significance of the proverb, everybody’s duty is nobody’s duty; none of these institutions has so far been found active to meet the minimum expectations of rendering their stipulated duties. Of course, all of them are burdened with lots of other key responsibilities. Also, most of them lack adequate manpower and logistics to handle properly an array of issues simultaneously.
A few drives have been conducted on the part of those institutions, of course in a separate manner, against adulterated foods in different cities, especially in the capital Dhaka, in recent times. One cannot, however, deny that all this has so far occurred in an episodic manner. Most importantly, such drives have largely come into being after the High Court verdict over the issue in 2009. In that landmark verdict, the court ordered the government to set up food court and laboratory in every district besides conducting drives against production and distribution of all kinds of poisonous food on a regular basis. Additionally, following the verdict, the government took the initiative to enact the Food Safety Act 2013.
It is expected that the proposed law may be able to end the lack of coordination between the organisations mentioned earlier apparently responsible for fighting adulteration of foods by paving way for constituting a single authority to deal with the issue. Regrettably, however, there is hardly any provision in the draft law to entrust any specific authority with the task to issue licence on the production and marketing of safe food. Nor is there any effort to follow the FAO/WHO guidelines on the national food control system.
The previous political government of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party brought some reforms to the mother law, the Pure Food Act, 1959 that is, in 2005. The reform enabled an authority named National Food Safety Advisory Council consisting of 16 ministerial staff to come into existence. The main duty of this council is to give advice to the government, among others, about setting the standards of food safety. But the people of this country do not know what kind of advice it has so far given to the government in last eight years. Even whether the council ever held any meeting during this period remains a question. Not only that, the council did not include the director general of health as its member, a step very important for technical opinion (or expertise) and implementation of the law. Unfortunately still, the proposed law has failed to make way for such an inclusion as well.
It is worth noting that adulteration of food affects public health, and it is the health ministry that has plenty of people such as sanitary inspectors at field level who have technological knowledge to handle the issue. A sanitary inspector needs to complete four-year courses on how to fight food adulteration, preventive measures against diseases and how to develop effective sanitation system. Hence, to allow policies on successfully tackling food adulteration to reflect aspiration of ordinary people, inclusion of the representatives of sanitary inspectors in the committees formed at national level concerning the food safety issue is very crucial. But the proposed law has no provisions in this regard. It is also worthy to note that during the British colonial rule over this land, the duty to monitor the activities involving food adulteration was vested with the LGRD and cooperatives ministry, and in 1973, it was transferred to the sanitary inspectors through a presidential order. Meanwhile, due to lack of proper policies, such a step still largely remains on papers; at least 1500 officials trained to fight adulterated food and encourage people to adopt preventive measures against diseases at the health ministry are at present sitting idle which is definitely a waste of resources and public wealth.
Reports have it that there is a tug of war between the concerned government authorities over the control of dealing with food adulteration, something that may have impact on the formulation of the proposed law. This is, perhaps, why the proposed law has failed to suggest proper role for sanitary inspectors in particular in the fight against the menace.
Summing up, I want to remind the people involved in enacting the proposed food safety law of the age-old fact that prevention is always better than cure when it comes to addressing health hazards, and using the sanitary inspectors in a proper manner is a key to achieve this goal. At the same time, I also want to make appeal to consumers at large to raise their voices over the issue. There are some organisations claiming to fight for protecting consumers’ interests. But it cannot be denied that their activities are merely based in the urban areas, the big cities for that matter. Last but not the least, there is no alternative to building a different directorate for handling just the food safety issues. Hopefully, the government high-ups will pay heed to the concerns raised.
Md Khoshrumiah Chowdhury is president of the Sanitary Inspectorship Welfare Association.
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THE incumbent government has taken an initiative to pass a law in parliament with the objective to ensure food safety. The draft of the law called Food Safety Bill 2013 has already been approved by the cabinet. Full story
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