Testing imported food products
The Financial Express August 08, 2019
It is no doubt surprising that while imported food products in most countries these days are subjected to rigorous testing, particularly chemical testing, Bangladesh is far from instituting a testing regime despite occasional alarm bells sounded from various quarters about acutely harmful substances in imported food products. Ironically, while the country’s shipments of processed and primary foods often face uncertainties, even outright rejection at foreign ports during testing due to various imperfections, the authorities here do not seem interested in testing imported food items unless compelled to do so.
Bangladesh procures numerous food products round the year from various sources, both primary and processed. According to experts, a large number of these, if tested, might reveal many clandestine schemes in gaining control of the country’s food market with unsafe, even harmful and prohibited ingredients. Such hazardous ingredients could be used to extend the shelf life of food products beyond acceptable limits, or to add to taste and texture, or even to make up for absence of any important food component. It may be recalled that around five years ago, the country experienced serious uproar over alleged presence of melamine in imported milk. Later in early 2018, the Bangladesh Food Safety Authority announced that it had detected lead residues 10 to 16 times the permissible limit in powdered milk of several imported brands.
However strange it may seem, despite these alarm bells the authorities have done nothing to set up a testing regime for some of the most sensitive food products such as milk – let alone for scores of other food products such as fruits, spices, edible oil, bakery items etc. In this context, it may be recalled that the High Court in July, 2014 directed the National Board of Revenue (NBR) to install chemical testing units and not to release imported fruits from land and sea ports without testing them for harmful chemicals. Setting up such testing units is indeed tough, particularly for product-specific inspection. Still, how does one explain the utter lack of concern of relevant authorities, particularly the Bangladesh Food Safety Authority, in allowing food items without the least vigil? The government, however, conducts sporadic drives to rein in home-grown food adulteration in super stores and kitchen markets in big cities but with no lasting impact given the short-lived effect of such occasional raids.
Bangladesh is among the few countries that are yet to put in place standard compliance norms for imported products. But when it comes to food products, there should have been a mechanism of random testing to check purity of the products in view of alleged adulteration and low quality of some of the most consumed food items in the country. It is high time the authorities made food testing mandatory at import stage. As a starter, it may be confined to a limited range of products believed to be more susceptible to adulteration than others. The job will obviously call for well coordinated effort among the relevant state agencies to be able to ensure that no unsafe food product enters the country bypassing the testing scanner.