Food safety

Published November 8, 2023
The writer is an academic medical researcher and a doctor working for a tertiary care hospital in Karachi.
The writer is an academic medical researcher and a doctor working for a tertiary care hospital in Karachi.

FOOD safety and nutrition are closely linked. Just as nutrition is crucial to good health, food safety issues are critical for overall health and well-being. In short, it’s all about whether or not what we chew, eat and drink is safe for our health. This refers to using ingredients and handling, preparing and storing food in a way that minimises the risk of foodborne illnesses, as biological, chemical and physical contamination can be hazardous. According to statistics, almost one in 10 people globally falls ill after eating contaminated food, while 420,000 die every year as a result of it.

Pakistan made its first food safety law back in the 1960s. Over the years, policymakers established clear standards regarding food safety and protection in the country, with the federal and provincial regulators trying to implement them.

However, in violation of the set standards, the adulteration of packaged food by adding inferior or harmful ingredients to edible products, and the trend of cutting corners and duping consumers have persisted here. Local standards even prohibit the addition of certain food colours or additives to packaged food products. With the laws in place and the regulators apparently enforcing them, and a formal well-documented food sector operating in the country, one would have assumed that ensuring food safety would not be much of a challenge, but the situation is, in fact, the reverse.

The grey food trade is booming in Pakistan and formal channels suffer. Not only is the smuggling of food items detrimental to an already crippled economy it also raises grave health concerns. Cooking oils, spices and dairy products such as butter and creams are commonly smuggled. The recent influx of Iranian and Afghan food products through illegal trade may appear to offer respite to the food-inflation-struck masses due to cheap rates. But it’s important to note that there is absolutely no regulation of the health and safety standard of these food items — with zero tracing, tracking or testing — before they hit the market shelves.

The grey food trade is booming in Pakistan.

A few years ago, the commerce ministry issued SRO 237 that clearly mentioned that packaged food products should have at least 66 per cent of their shelf life left at the time of import, and added that the ingredients should be printed in both Urdu and English on the packaging, along with the authentic halal certification logo.

Sadly, food items that do not conform to the standards set in SRO 237 are being smuggled through Taftan and flourish in markets in Balochistan near the border, and are even accessed by wholesalers and high-end retailers in urban centres.

Inaccurate expiry dates on the packaging are alarming and there is no way of verifying them. Nutrient information in a foreign language is another hindrance. It may sound relatively benign but can lead to harmful health conditions such as prolonged allergies. The use of banned food chemicals may lead to illnesses including food poisoning. The effects of harmful food additives can include palpitations, urticaria, abdominal pain, diarrhoea and vomiting. Some spices even become carriers for spores and can be responsible for serious outbreaks.

Globally, food scares are not uncommon. Pesticide residues have been previously found in imported rice batches in many countries, leading to temporary bans and stricter regulation of rice imports. The same is the case for many prohibited dyes and food colour. In 2018, Australian cantaloupes laced with Listeria caused an outbreak of listeriosis in the countries they were exported to, leading to their recall.

In Pakistan, the smuggled food products situation was improving after SRO 237 was issued in 2019, but in the past few months, these smuggled food items seem to be back.

Porous borders and poor enforcement of food laws have boosted this illicit trade. Stakeholders, policymakers and the government should focus their attention on curbing the illegal inflow of these products from across the border for the sake of public health. Apart from health risks, the economy faces staggering financial losses due to these practices. Pakistan loses $2.6 billion in tax revenues due to the smuggling of food items. Smuggled food cost is estimated at $9bn.

Uniform legislation should be in place to impose stringent measures. The Pakistan Standards and Quality Control Authority, Pakistan Customs and the Ministry of Commerce should ensure a stronger crackdown on the grey or black market and tighten border controls to protect the health of the masses. Consumers should also try to learn about product quality and the grave consequences that they are exposed to in case of substandard food consumption.

The writer is an academic medical researcher and a doctor working for a tertiary care hospital in Karachi.

navaira_ali@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, November 8th, 2023

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