SAFE food appears difficult to come across, with public and private research having detected for years harmful substances such as heavy metal and banned antibiotics in many of the food items — agricultural produces, poultry, fish and meat and processed food — yet with national agencies meant to look after such issues having not lifted a finger high enough to stop such contamination. The furore that creates a stir at almost every instance of the detection of food contamination among the public and the authorities dies down soon after, leaving the situation back to square one. While all this happens, the food items that Bangladesh exports, especially to the United States and Great Britain, have also ended up being intercepted and destroyed at international airports as poisonous and harmful substances have been found in them. But this has hardly created any stir, not in the public space at least, as such happenings have mostly remained beyond the public eye. Countries such as the United States and Great Britain are reported to have denied food exported from Bangladesh entry 210 times since September 2020, with several instances of rejection taking place every month over microbial, chemical and heavy metal contamination. All this has brought Bangladesh heaps of shame and caused a huge waste of resources.

Official data released by both the countries of export destination and Bangladesh show that rice, shrimp, other fish and a wide range of packed food items were found uneatable. The adulteration of items such as potato and betel leaves has been so widespread that their export has remained suspended to two major importers for several years. Well-known domestic food manufacturers have produced a number of such food items. Food items exported from Bangladesh were found to contain Salmonella and even decomposed substances. Many of the items were found to be filthy and putrid. Shrimp and prawn exports were denied entry over the presence of nitrofuran, a banned antibiotic that may cause cancer. Independent research has showed how toxic elements find their way to the food chain from the environment in the absence of proper waste management. Toxic elements also find their way to food because of an excessive use of agricultural inputs such as pesticide and breaches of the residue management regulations, especially in cases of crops and fruit. Bangladesh, meanwhile, lacks provisions for health certificate issuance for food exporters and whenever it has so done, it has done it without testing the food. Until recently, when the Food Safety Authority has been entrusted with the task of issuing certificates for exporters, the Export Promotion Bureau and the Department of Agricultural Extension, neither owning any laboratory, had so far done this. The Safe Food Authority is, however, set to issue its first certificate this November. Three to four exporters have sought health certificates, but with at least one only after having made the shipment.

The situation suggests that food safety regime, not only meant for export but also for domestic consumption, has been mired in problems that public agencies have so far left ignored. The government must, therefore, streamline the food export management and take action against errant companies, but it must also attend to food production regime for domestic consumption with the same earnestness.

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