Food Hazard in Dhaka: A threat to citizens’ health

42
Democracy
Dhaka
Mir Mosharref Hossain Pakbir

MNA Editorial Desk: Dhaka citizens have become prone to various food related diseases in past few decades. They are exposed to outside foods to some extents and hygiene and purity of those are ever under questions. Along with urbanization, greater numbers of people are working at offices and are bound to take foods outside.

There are thousands of hotels and restaurants along with so many open food shops. With so much dust and germs in Dhaka’s environment along with inadequate availability of clean drinking water, diseases derived from foods are increasing everyday. One of our major costs today is the cost of medicines and it will not be unwise if we claim that, we have so many diseases today because of unhygienic foods.

Maintaining sound health has become a great challenge now-a-days even for those who are seriously health conscious. Food, which is required to survive, has become threat to our existence today. Almost no food is pure unless produced by self. Food contamination and consumers’ exposure to food hazards have major implication on the food security and consumers health in Dhaka. Excessive use of pesticides and other chemicals, unregulated street food sales and low awareness on food safety can drive serious health hazards for the citizens of Dhaka.

Thousands of hotels and restaurants spread all around Dhaka without much regulation. Of course, there are some laws like Safe Food Act 2013, but the people operating those don’t understand these laws.

They are not even informed of laws regarding preparation, preservation and presentation of foods. Usually cheap labours, not adequately aware of the hygiene factors, are hired in these restaurants. Their working environment also does not allow maintaining hygiene. None of the workers or the owners of these restaurants have the minimum training on maintaining food quality without any contamination.

To open a restaurant, it does not require much in Dhaka city except a trade license. While providing trade license, City Corporation does not check anything at all though according to law, they are supposed to check on few critical things. Even if those are checked, they are not well enough for ensuring food safety. We often hear mobile courts fining the hotels and restaurants for production of foods in an unsafe manner as well as unhygienic environment. But that is not the permanent solution.

With unsafe practices all around Dhaka city, penalizing only a few will not create much impact. Moreover, why are we penalizing them? We have not provided any training or we have not made them aware of the food safety issues.

Without any effort from the government’s side to promote food safety, we cannot just pressurize these restaurant owners to pay for unsafe practices.  Even after paying a fine, they will not be able to ensure clean and uncontaminated food because in reality they lack knowledge of how to do that. And in all these, we, the Dhaka citizens, are suffering immensely.

According to a 2006 study by the US-based University of Minnesota’s Centre for Animal Health and Food Safety, 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.

Mostly this problem is generated from three reasons: food adulteration, use of pesticides and contaminated foods. From 2006 till now, this situation has worsened a lot and there is no Dhaka city family which has not experienced any types of food hazard as we are often down with stomachache, diarrhoea, stomach pain etc. But it will cause much more, even different sorts of cancers, if we continue to consume these foods for years.

The worst case scenario of food contamination lies with the street food vendors of Dhaka city. Almost everything involved with their food is contaminated. Hands of 88 per cent vendors are stained with germs and about two third vendors carry bacteria in hand while preparing foods, according to a study by ICDDR,B in 2015.

Along with that, the water they use is mostly dirty or polluted. They also use foods with harmful preservatives, chemicals, colours and ingredients. Health is not at all their concern and people also want to buy cheap food with no hygiene factor. The dust in the polluted air makes these street foods more contaminated and becomes a great source of several diseases.

Lot had been written about food adulteration. Use of formalin and several harmful pesticides were banned. But that could not make much impact. Still we find contaminated and hazardous food items not only in the market, but also in the large chain stores. These can directly cause cancer and several other chronic diseases. And there seems no way out of this situation. We are consuming foods which are equivalent to poison.

The snacks, bakery items, food ingredients, juices and beverages of different companies, even the large ones, are mostly unsafe. We cannot even imagine what they use to make those. Sometimes we hear rumours like mango juice produced from rotten papayas, chilli powder produced from brick-dusts etc., which might not be true, but surely these are not made the way that was supposed to and these are extremely harmful for health. But still, we have to consume those as we do not have any other option in Dhaka.

In Dhaka, the number of hospitals, clinics, pathological centres and pharmacies has increased a lot and that is due to increasing number of patients. We are spending more and more on medicines and treatments each year and that is mostly caused by impure foods.

In any developed country, food safety is an extremely prioritized matter. But, we don’t put much emphasis on that. If we want to save Dhaka citizens from leading a completely unhealthy life, then we need to take some strong steps.

The government should set up a training facility where anyone who wants to open a restaurant must take 4-6 weeks of training on food quality assurance and clean kitchen facility. They must be provided with a certificate after completion of the training.

The City Corporation, Directorate General of Food, the Ministry of Food, food and nutrition departments of different universities and different NGOs can organize these training programmes and awareness campaigns. The owner must include few employees of his shop in this training program and they will train the others.

If the owner and at least 30 per cent of the employees do not receive this training, there will be no trade license to open the restaurant. This practice is already present in many countries and they have successfully ensured food quality for their consumers.

The street vendors must obtain a license to operate their food cart. The government can even provide them a well designed food cart which can help to ensure food hygiene. These street vendors in groups must also receive some short training on preparing healthy food, maintaining hygiene and clean preservation. These street vendors must be brought under some sort of monitoring and their impact on the food system on the society cannot be overlooked.

Government must emphasize on educating the farmers on the bad effect of chemical pesticides specially those which possess serious threats to health. The agriculture officers at Thana or union level must run rigorous campaign for that. They should also spread a strong message against use of formalin and its impact on human health. This message should carry strong ideas of punishment.

The food manufacturing companies should be trained on ethics first and then compliance in their production processes must be emphasized. They must know about the consequences of using wrong materials in production. They must be well informed of the health hazards that are caused by the preservatives and chemicals used in the food products.

The government must take initial initiatives for these trainings and campaigns. Most importantly, all the processes and permission related to foods must be free of corruption. Everyone must practice ethics in this matter because it is the question of a nation’s health.

Dhaka citizens must also be aware of what they are eating. They should consciously avoid consuming food with preservatives. Not more than 10 per cent of our daily food consumed should be with preservatives. Food and nutrition should be an integral part of our early education also. We must act for ourselves to keep healthy.

There are several food related laws in Bangladesh like; Bangladesh Pure Food Ordinance (1959), Fish and Fish Product Rules (1997) and the Radiation Protection Act (1987) etc. These laws are good if the food product producers, famers, restaurant owners and street food vendors are well aware of food safety related issues.

To eliminate this problem and to ensure the health of Bangladeshis especially Dhaka citizens, we must educate and train them first and then we should go for surveillance and punishment. We hope if an integrated and uncorrupted approach is taken, we will have success in reducing and even eliminating food safety related health hazards in Dhaka.

People from whole Bangladesh come to Dhaka for different reasons. If we can turn Dhaka into the role model of ensuring food safety that will enable ensuring that throughout the country. So, we must take the steps to eliminate food hazards in Dhaka right now and save the citizens from sickness and diseases.

The writer is the Chief Editor at Mohammadi News Agency (MNA)