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A risk to the public health

By Syed M. Aslam
April 08 - 14, 2002

Widespread presence of unhealthy edible oil is posing grave health risks to millions of people in the country, particularly poor and urbanites. The serious risks to the public health is caused by presence of sub-standard edible oil and ghee manufactured by hundreds of medium and small manufacturing units in the unorganized sector.

Pakistan is heavily dependent on imported edible oil to meet the growing demand in a society which by and large has a liking for all things fried and greasy. The annual requirement for edible oils in the country is about 1.9 million tons of which 1.3 million tons or 71 per cent is imported. The edible oil consumption in Pakistan is growing at about 9 per cent per annum. Edible oil imports is costing the country Rs 40 billion a year depending on the exchange rate.

According to Technical Advisor of Pakistan Coconut & Oil Palm Plantation Society, Muhammad Ilyas Qureshi, the deregulation of edible oil import by the government some 17 years ago is the main cause of the malaise which is posing grave threats to public health. Prior to 1985, he told PAGE, edible oil imports were controlled by the government which not only imported the oils but also distributed it.

The deregulation intended to let the market forces play a significant role to benefit the consumers is misused and abused by the importers and the manufacturers alike today. And this is seriously undermining the public health. The deregulation which allows anybody to import edible oil has encouraged the unscrupulous elements to import edible oil without whatsoever check.

Palm oil is the most used edible oil imported in the country. It is used in numerous food products such as vanaspati, cooking oil, margarines, shortenings. Palm kernel oil is also used in manufacture of ice cream and chocolate fats. However, palm stearin is not edible and is primarily used in the manufacture of soaps, detergents, cosmetics and other personal care products.

The bulk of palm oil edible as well as inedible is imported from Malaysia which produces 49 per cent of world's palm oil. The palm oil used in the manufacture of a range of everyday household edible oil or ghee is imported in a single RBD (Refined, Blend and Deodorize) form. This is the pre-refined form. According to Ilyas the edible oil manufacturers in the unorganized sector have seen it fit to forego the standard post-refining RBD process to save costs. This tendency to forego the post-refining RBD to better an already high profit a kilogram of edible oil processed in the country costs between Rs 15-20 including all over heads but retails for a minimum of Rs 50 per kilogram is extremely dangerous to the health of the unaware consumers. This all too common unscrupulous tendency by hundreds of ghee and oil manufacturers in the unorganized sector is extremely hazardous to human health as it sets the melting point of the unrefined cooking oil, ghee, shortening, etc., at 39 degree Centigrade which is 0.6 degree centrigade above the body's ideal melting point of 38.4 degree Centigrade.

The prevalent epidemic and the growing number of cardiac diseases in Pakistan can be attributed to the massive presence of unhealthy edible oil. The most worrying aspect of the problem is that these unhealthy products find a receptive market in the poverty stricken masses of the country, particularly in the urban areas where there is a great demand for loose counterparts, due primarily to prices. While the bigger edible oil manufacturers are double-refining their products the massive use of loose products to save money is putting the national public health at grave risks.

If this is not enough the public health is undermined by unscrupulous elements in another way. Blending plays a vital role to ensure quality assurance in manufacture of edible oils and ghee as none of the oil itself is healthy alone except for soya bean and canola. Until its privatization the Ghee Corporation of Pakistan (GCP) which comprise dozens of units, used to blend an ideal proportion to manufacture its many edible oil products which comprised 40 per cent soya bean, 40 per cent oilseed and 20 per cent palm oil. GCP experience little monthly change in this ideal formula for 'danedar' ghee, which used to have a flavour just not available anymore, as it used to buy all ingredients itself.

Today anyone can import oil itself and that has given many an unscrupulous elements to import non-edible palm sterin oil meant for manufacture of soap, detergent, cosmetics, etc., and use it in manufacture of edible oil at the grave cost to public health. That also explains the reason for the Federal Ministry of Health to issue notices to 94 edible oil mills to better the standard of their products or face closure. The ministry has also ordered all the unregistered ghee mills to get registered immediately and has also formed a four-member committee to ensure that the ghee manufactured in the country meets the required standard 35 per cent soft oil and 65 per cent hard oil. It has also made it mandatory for all ghee and oil mills to establish quality control laboratories and said that it would seal all working units failing to establish the laboratory within 15 days.

The local ghee and oil manufacturers should not be allowed to play Russian Roulette with public health. It is also imperative to check that un-edible oil imported is not used in the manufacture of edible ghee and oils. It is time to bring the unscrupulous importers and manufacturers to the book to save the public health from the doom which benefits only a handful of unscrupulous elements.