Contemplating on Food Hazard Situation

by Professor Dr. Golam Mowlah

Food is the structural and building blocks of the body. As such, every thing put through the mouth to fill the stomach is not food. Food constitutes the components responsible for the function of the body. Therefore, food is utilised by the body for the purpose of its growth, development and maintenance. As such food requires to supply nutrients like fats, proteins, carbohydrates, water, vitamins and minerals to constitute the structural and functional components of the body including body grounding materials, blood and other body fluids, hormones and immunological substances of the body. Food must supply all nutrients of the body system for its proper development, maintenance of growth and all biological functions and productivity. A food system may contain all, most and or adequate or sufficient quantities of nutrients among fats, proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and trace elements; and must be free from any component and element hazardous to health and affect food safety. Therefore, food must be nutritionally balanced and complete and hygienically safe. The nutrients as required by the body may be obtained from different food sources e.g., from animal and livestock sources, fish and fishery resources and from plant resources. Among the food resources meat, fish, egg, milk, pulse and legumes are the major sources of proteins; cereals and tubers are the main sources of carbohydrates; oils, butter and ghee are the main sources of fats; and fruits and vegetables are the principal sources of vitamins and minerals of the body. Now, as food is expected to meet all nutritional requirements of the body without having any harmful and side-effect to the body; and is a composition, formulation and preparation to be selected from the food resources taking the contents, composition and availability of the individual nutrients in them into consideration. Therefore, an ideal and or a balanced food system must contain all the required nutrients for maintaining the proper nutritional status of the body and must be free from any pathogens and hazardous compound that may be present either as a built-in component and or come through adulteration.

Food hazards indicating to substances responsible for outbreak of different food-borne illness and diseases are real threat to the people for its affect on nutrition and food security. Firstly, because all foods are not nutritious and free from food and health hazards. And secondly, food security does not mean only the adequate supply of foods as food security is directly related to per capita intake of food and the food must be free from all sorts of food hazards and pathogens and must be nutritionally complete and balanced. It implies that the quantity and quality of the food intaken must meet all nutritional requirements of the body status and fulfil the quality standards of foods. Food hazards may take place due to different reason and cause factors. The significant factors are: the presence of non-nutritional and toxic substances in the specified food; addition of non-permitted food additives, preservatives, chemicals and substances to the food; sub-standard or below-standard production, processing, packaging, preservation, storage and marketing practices; adulteration of food in the food-chain system starting from production and harvest to consumption and intake; and unhygienic and improper sanitary conditions in the food-chain system. Therefore ensuring food security and food safety requires multidisciplinary approach and concerted efforts involving professionals and experts; the producers, business community, industrialists and entrepreneurs; the government authorities and agencies concerned; and finally the consumers who happen to be the real prey and victim of any impaired and unwarranted situations and circumstances and constitute the majority of the population. So, any adverse situation arising due to food hazards needs to be controlled and eradicated following the thoughtful and reasonable participation of the three pillars like administrative, legislative and judiciary along with the professionals for establishing good governance and to make the myths and rights like "the government is for the people, by the people and of the people" truly accessible and meaningful to the people.

The selling of a huge quantity of toxic ‘vetch’ as lentil in the open market for human consumption is a matter of great concern and shock. The people and the consumers are cheated and misguided to use these ‘vetch’ as food due to its physical resemblance to lentil and, at the same time, the indiscriminating consumers have also preferred it due to its lower price in the competitive market without knowing that these 'vetches' are not even suitable for consumption as feed for animal due to the presence of heatstable neurotoxins like bita-cyano-L-alanine, gamma-L-glutamyl dipeptide and arginine analogue of L-canavanine in them which are known for damaging eyesight and body tissues. The so-called business circles are learnt to be endeavouring to market these 'vetch' by grounding them into flour and misleading the people to use them as a recipe for the preparation of deep oil-fried food items. These types of business forces are cheating the consumers and pulling the people towards the risk of health hazards, and have long-term affect on the productivity and economy of the country. The irresponsibility on their part may cripple or cause death to a valuable life. Here another example may be cited of unjust and irresponsible trading practice that occurred during early eighties through import of large amount of radioactive milk powders. In spite of the disagreements by the professionals these imported milk powders were found to disappear from the Chittagong port making the possibility of marketing of these milk powders in the country. I, personally as a professional, opined and advocated in discussion meetings for not allowing these radioactive milk powders to enter into the market-place irrespective of their quantity of radioactive contents because of the fact that Bangladesh virtually does not possess any data relating to the long-term affect of different radioactive doses for the children of this country consistent to the nutritional and health status of the children. In parallel it is observed that the frozen shrimp and fishery items of Bangladesh having even permitted number of ‘salmonella’ and other micro-organisms in it are not allowed to be on boarded in any other country due to the threat of being contaminated and adulterated with pathogens. These frozen shrimp industries are found to observe quality and standard methods for processing following the internationally accepted hazard analysis critical control points (HACCP) methods. But still there exists the possibility of market rejection of some frozen shrimp products in the name of sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) agreements and technical barrier to trade (TBT) of the Uruguay Round Agreements of World Trade Organisation (WTO). These phenomena should be the guidelines and lessons for our people to remain alert in participating in the open market economy along with culturing values of fair practices in business and economic activities and functions both for imported and locally produced items, goods and commercial commodities.

With the advancement of science and technology, gaining of knowledge on food-hazards and development of food consciousness and nutritional and health awareness, people are becoming more and more inclined towards natural and health foods. But it is a matter of regret and concern as well that some prepared food items available in the market place for consumption are not conforming to quality standards and showing the risk of health hazard due to their content of undesired and disproportionate quantities of recipes and adulteration with chemicals in the name of additives and preservatives and lack of due attention to the code of good manufacturing practices (GMP) including guidelines for packaging, storing and marketing. These unjust and bad practices need to be resolved by implementing and enforcing regulatory and controlling rules and laws, special power acts for the maintenance of proper health and nutrition of the people, for avoiding the risk of food and health hazards and for sustainable economic development. The microbiological quality of the prepared and street food items are deplorable due to poor hygienic, unhealthy sanitary conditions and bad handling practices during production, storage, packaging and marketing. The occurrences of gastroenteritis including dysentery, cholera, brusellosis, tuberculosis, dyptheria, typhoid and paratyphoid due to intake of contaminated foods by salmonella, streptococcus and shigella are very often heard. Incidents of food hazards are very much in common due to the intake of bottled water. The bottled water are sold as ‘mineral water’ which is a deliberate cheating of the consumers. Because these bottled water are never conforming to the standards set for 'mineral water'. This bottled water may be termed as 'bottled potable or drinking water' subject to their conformation to microbiological standards and must be free of arsenic contamination. At the same time these water should be bottled in disposable hard plastic bottles so that these bottles cannot be used for the purpose of imitation and counterfeiting and indiscriminate and illegal filling of water and for avoiding adulteration.

The advent of new millennium is really the time to be pledged-bound and to concentrate all our efforts for presenting healthy and quality foods and for avoiding of food hazards and providing food safety and security for the people of this country. The business community and the industrialists should concentrate their effort for developing and maintaining qualities and standards of their manufactured products to survive in the world of competitive forces of free and open market economy. There lie the chances of converting the challenges of the global free economic forces into opportunities through improvement of qualities and standards of products and, thus, paving the path for sustainable economic development of the country. On the other hand there exists ample of chances to be marginalised by the competitive economic forces of the global market. There is no short-cut way and compromise or alternative to pursuing the path of maintaining of quality and standards of products both for developing successful entrepreneurship and for ensuring food safety for the consumers. In a developed economy the quality of products is the main driving and market force for business and economy. In those cases the private sector economy plays the pivotal role in the economic development, emancipation and prosperity of the country while the state plays the role of facilitator. However, in developing or least developed countries like ours where professionals are unusually less privileged, infrastructure and technology development activities are below the standard level and the activities for deriving short-term financial gain dominate the quality standard perfomances and activities, the intervention by the government bodies and agencies concerned through enacting and enforcing of regulatory rule and laws are necessary to neutralise the uneven economic forces for the interest of both the consumers and entrepreneurs. Members of the civil society must also monitor the activities of the commercial sector involved with food to ensure a healthy present as well as future.

The author is a Professor at the Institute of Nutrition and Food Science, University of Dhaka & is a former Director General of Bangladesh Standards & Testing Institution (BSTI), MOI, GOB.