Food whistleblowers still in their infancy
By Mukhtar Alam
KARACHI: The provincial food safety watchdog seems to be toothless to clamp a tight check on the preparation and sale of adulterated food and hazardous drinks owing to inadequate manpower and poor financial resourcing from the government, as the markets remain rife with untrustworthy grocery and drinks, it emerged last week.
Sources in the Food circles said that the much-hyped Sindh Food Authority (SFA), which was established under a law passed by the Sindh Assembly in 2017, has been unable to perform meaningfully owing to various issues, particularly the hiring of the adequate number of field inspectors, officially called assistant food safety officers. The authority, however, has hired an insignificant number of inspectors and that too on meagre wages on a daily basis under a contractual system.
It was learnt that the government notified the establishment of the SFA, with provincial food minister as its chairman on May 3, 2018, but no recruitment rules were defined for inducting the staff. “Most of the managerial posts have been filled through the makeshift arrangements,” said a source in the authority, adding that the regulatory body did not have its own specialised or competent laboratories. “Getting the samples of food, spices, oils and drinks scientifically tested for any prosecution purpose from private laboratories proves significantly time-consuming and costlier, particularly when there is a dearth in the flow of funds,” the source viewed.
A source privy to the financial affairs of the authority said the government had approved Rs100 million for the incurring budget of SFA, but very little had been released despite lapse of about a half of the financial year.
The big wigs in the government and the civil society leaders appear impressed with the performance of the Punjab Food Authority, which is known for its bites in other provinces now, but they will certainly be baffled if told that an amount to the tune of seven billion rupees has been invested in the food quality regulation activities in Punjab.
The SFA has so far been able to activate its vigilance teams in Karachi, Hyderabad, Larkana and Mirpurkhas by employing mere 20 or so assistant food safety officers, who have been appointed on temporary basis against a payment that is being paid to unskilled labourers, confided an insider.
Under the provisions of section 19 of the SFA Act 2016, every food operator is required to obtain a licence to run a business, while only about 150 such licences could be issued in Karachi, which shows the extent of improper enforcement of laws, shortage of field-staff and related logistics, besides ill-advised system of inspection and pursuance of the operators.
The authority on the recommendations of its “Scientific Panel” had imposed a ban on the sale of certain food items, including loose spices, open oil or ghee, carbonated soft drinks, energy drinks, papad and coloured flavour snacks/chips in school and college canteens as well as the use of calcium carbide for quick ripening of fruits in September 2018. However, SFA’s restrictions were not largely being heeded by marketers, revealed some surveyors.
It was further learnt that the SFA personnel have been stopped from carrying out legal operations in the areas controlled by the federal government or cantonment authorities, though the SFA Act 2016 was supposed to be extended to provide safe, hygienic and healthy food as per set standards of the government to the whole of Sindh province.
When contacted, Secretary Sindh Food Department Laeeq Ahmed said things were being streamlined on a fast track. “We have finalized the recruitment rules so as to pave the way for formal employment of qualified and competent staff at the SFA. Besides, matters relating to the establishment of a standard food testing laboratory and a couple of mobile labs were also being actively pursued, he added. “Negotiations with the food science and technology department of a public sector university are going on,” Ahmed said, adding the government may provide one-time seed money of Rs100 million for establishing a state-of-the-art fixed laboratory, which will ultimately be run as a self-sustained entity.
Admitting that the process of registering the food and drink outlets could not pick the right pace, the secretary, who also acted as director-general of SFA, said that after introducing certain amendments in the operating procedures, the food makers and sellers would now be in a position to apply for registration by submitting an undertaking that they will abide by the provisions of the SFA laws. “We are getting a good response and have expedited the process of issuing the “Food Business Licence” to applicants,” he elaborated, saying a registration certificate can be cancelled or suspended any time if a food operator fails to rectify the deficiencies in his business as pointed out by the SFA through its improvement notices.
He said crackdowns will be launched against the violators of food laws and those playing havoc with the health of the consumers with severity. “We have also started a survey of vegetable oils and ghee, milk, spices and tea and other largely consumed food items to assess the level of adulteration in the marketing of such items,” he stressed.
Mr Ahmed said that the SFA’s jurisdiction or action was disputed in some of the areas although the law was clear about its implementation across the province. “It is a sad development and we have sought further guidance from the Sindh Law Department on the subject,” he mentioned.