Towards Safe Food
The Sindh Food Authority seeks to protect the people from sub-standard food items by enforcing strict food safety laws.
There are chances that food may become more hygienic for the people of Sindh.
Food safety involves everybody in the food chain.” —Mike Johanns, United States Senator from Nebraska (2009 to 2015).
The East, especially India and Pakistan, is known for its hospitality where food is the prime focus of everyday life. Whether it is a happy occasion or a funeral, the thought that occupies everybody concerns what food should be offered. Even if there is no particular event, getting together for a tête-à-tête involves the intake of delicacies.
In Pakistan where modes of entertainment for the public are scarce, the most convenient and easily accessible source is that of an eatery — whether a small dhaba (roadside kiosk) or a five-star restaurant. For large scale weddings and other important occasions, innumerable caterers — serve food as their bread and butter and can be found all over the country. Besides, the need to have daily nutrition is also a biological requirement without which no human being can function properly nor maintain a healthy life. In more simple terms, for a healthy nation, the significance of a healthy diet cannot Ensuring Food Safety
For a healthy diet, it becomes imperative that all food products whether agriculturally produced or processed, should meet the international standards of safety as laid down by the World Health Organization ( WHO). This places tremendous importance on food safety as this becomes a public health priority. According to WHO, unsafe food poses global health threats, endangering everyone, including infants, young children, pregnant women, the elderly and those with chronic diseases since they are more vulnerable than others. Improper food intake creates a vicious cycle of diarrhea and malnutrition. The problem is that food can become contaminated at any time in between production and distribution and yet again be improperly prepared or cooked or mishandled in homes, markets or commercial centres. Practices of adopting basic hygiene care in handling and preparing food items are integral to ensuring food safety.
The Punjab Food Authority (PFA) under the Punjab Food Authority Act, 2011 became the first such authority to come into existence in Pakistan. Its various functions include regulating and monitoring the food business to ensure compliance by farmers, manufacturers, distributors, importers and other stakeholders; formulating standards, procedures, processes and guidelines in relation to any aspect of food, including food business, food labelling, food additives and specifying appropriate enforcement systems; enforcement of food safety and quality standards; specifying procedures and guidelines for setting up and upgradation and establishment of food laboratories; providing scientific advice and technical support to the government in matters relating to food safety, etc.
So far, the Punjab experience has been quite encouraging as reflected in the quarterly reports, with the culprits taken to task and others forced to improve their working. Irrespective of the criticism it attracted, vigorous campaigns were initiated by the PFA to crack down on anybody indulging in activities in utter violation of the act and rules. More than sixty million rupees worth of penalties were imposed; 463 successful operations against mafias engaged in the business of impure or substandard foods were carried out; 2.600 food specimens were sent to laboratories for tests; compared to 20,000 inspections in the first ten months of 2016, there was reportedly a 450% rise in 2017; hundreds of factories were sealed; cases against severe adulterators were filed while some were actually arrested. In addition to these measures, training programmes for 6,000 food workers were launched in 5 districts of Punjab.
Taking a clue from Punjab, the Sindh government passed the Sindh Foods Act, 2016 in March 2017 under which the Sindh Food Authority (SFA) was formed to be headed by the food minister and comprising 16 members — 7 bureaucrats, 3 provincial lawmakers, one representative each of the Karachi Chamber of Commerce & Industry, food operators, food industry and consumers, a food technologist and any other member/respective commissioner as co-opted by the governor. The constitution of the SFA was appreciated by the media.
The law allows a food safety officer to initiate action against any person who manufactures, stores, sells, distributes, imports or exports any food item which is not of standard or misbranded. The said person could be liable to imprisonment for a term up to six months and/or fine, which may extend to one million rupees or both.
The law would also apply to those who manufacture or process or keep food under unhygienic or unsanitary conditions. Such persons would also be liable to imprisonment of up to six months and fine of up to one million rupees or both. In case of false warranty, the person could be liable to six months imprisonment or fine of up to Rs. 500,000 or both. In case of injury or death of a consumer due to unsafe food, the court, in addition to any other penalty under this law, may direct the food operator to pay compensation to the consumer or, as the case may be, the legal heirs of the consumer an amount which is not less than one million rupees in case of complete disability or death; or not exceeding Rs. 500,000 in case of partial disability or injury.
This long overdue move by the Sindh government will definitely breathe fresh life in the safety of the food situation in the province. It is hoped that the SFA will follow in the footsteps of PFA and help to establish an impurity free, hygienic and clean environment where victual lovers can enjoy their favourite dishes, snacks and beverages with full confidence. However, on a note of caution, the SFA should work with the food industry to build and maintain adequate food systems and infrastructures (e.g. laboratories) to respond to and manage food safety risks along the entire food chain and including during emergencies.
The SFA needs to foster multisectoral collaboration among public health, animal health, agriculture and other sectors for better communication and joint action. It must integrate food safety into broader food policies and programmes (e.g. nutrition and food security) and handle and prepare food safely, practicing the WHO Five Keys to Safer Food at home, or when selling at restaurants or at local markets. The SFA also needs to grow fruits and vegetables using the WHO Five Keys to Growing Safer Fruits and Vegetables to decrease microbial contamination.
The efficacy of the SFA depends on collective efforts of its machinery and public. These agencies cannot succeed unless they ensure public support and continuously launch campaigns for food standards and safety. For checks and successful prosecutions, they need to work in close liaison with relevant agencies on a national level such as the Pakistan Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (PCSIR). The PCSIR Laboratories Complex in Karachi has excellent facilities for testing of all kinds of products. The SFA should take random samples from manufacturing units and food outlets and get test reports from the PCSIR to detect adulteration and other impurities, like use of harmful materials, especially preservatives and artificial colours that can have disastrous effects on human beings. The writers, authors, lawyers and partners in HUZAIMA & IKRAM, are Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS).