June 30 - July 06, 2008

Sometimes the low reach of state functionaries to root out anomalous practices from the markets causes stagnation of problems, impregnating the gravity of worsened situations. Ensuring public health is one of such functions bestowed upon the state administration by the constitution and is falling into the dilemmatic affair for the government that is already entrapped in a mosaic of crises to raise above to resolving public health issues. Especially unchecked availability of unhygienic foods in street-ways, makeshift sales outlets, and eateries is one such gravest public health issues, which are being dangerously neglected.

Mere increment in allocation for health sector does not guarantee healthy people and society, but arresting of causative factors behind these deteriorating public health conditions can be fruitful in developing society and economy in long-term. In unverified packages, bottles, loose forms these substandard foods and beverages are available with nominal price rates in the markets. The economical price tags these products are attached with often attract consumers amidst spiralling food inflation.

According to Director Conformity Assessments, Pakistan Standards and Quality Control Authority, Tahir Khan, "In our society consumers are more price than quality conscious". He told this scribe lack of awareness in public basically is the root cause of proliferation of substandard foods.

Despite sale of these products from recognized outlets, usually stalls in weekly bazaars, small "Paan" cabins at bus terminals, and canopied eateries make sales of adulterated food products. Various water bottles, unknown branded biscuits and other eatables have already been detected with dubious contents nonetheless they are still seen being showcased in multitude of shops across the country.

Trade liberalization that has opened doors for imported products has given a safe passage of selling to these products. Lying in the heap of imported items at a typical weekly bazaar, these products giving false impression are misunderstood as registered from the local authority. In fact, all imported eatables too would not have necessarily succeeded essential laboratory tests, which are important to determine nutritive and food values.

The rapidly appeared metabolism in eating habits of country fellows has invited an onslaught of food products, some of which are in conformity with health standards, and certainly majority of which are noncompliant. Difference in price value definitely etches a fine line between these two groups. Not broaching on health hazardous varieties of meals (salan, roti) relished by many at pathway's motels in fear that it would open another Pandora box.

It is not that government has completely turned its sight off the issue, instead from central government ministry of science and technology and at provincial and district levels pure food laws and regulations have made different institutions responsible to check sale of unhygienic and substandard food items in public. Perhaps owing to variety in institutional controls within an area effective promulgation of pure foods laws has not been surfaced as yet.

PSQCA is one of the institutions that are entrusted with dual tasks of monitoring and regulating standard-compliance of durable and consumer products. Supervised by the ministry of science and technology, it has specialized department of conformity assessment to certify predefined around fifty nine manufacturing products being available in retail and wholesale markets across Pakistan.

Given the fact that there are numerous food products in the markets, the purview of this authority is incomprehensibly limited to 10 to 15 food items for which it annually recertifies or reissues licences in exclusivity (brand-wise). The manufacturers of these brands themselves apply for licence renewal. "The authority has also field force to verify standards-compliance of compulsory items," said an official on condition on anonymity, adding this type of review happens in weeks.

If it happens in a week or even two then it is commendable given the sarcastically entire strength of field force. Total 33 officers across the country engage in collecting primary information from the open markets. In Karachi, they make about 10, he said. The violator may face one year imprisonment. However, "so far nobody has been punished as violator," he informed.

Gainsaying is the fact that this feeble field operation can not ensure standardization. To get a PSQCA certified label, which is prerequisite for compulsory brands, a product undergoes laboratory tests. In Karachi, quality control department of City District Government Karachi collaborates with the federal government role of ensuring hygienic food products availability in the markets.

Having authority to issue and cancel food permits of sale outlets, this department too investigates into adulterated and unhygienic substances of foods through laboratory tests. Sharing a similar fate of staff shortage, it has barley 15 food inspectors who collect samples from randomly selected spots around the metropolis.

"They gather monthly 600 pure food samples out from different sale outlets in Karachi," said Anwar Qazi, Superintendent Food Laboratory, CDGK. Total 110 food items come under our purview, said he, saying health secretariat also notifies us of additional verification in food products. But, basically samples collection associates with the pure food products prescribed in the Pure Food Rules 1965, and Ordinance 1960.

Unfortunately, rules prescribed under Pure Foods Rules, 1965-guiding principles for the department-do not apprehend manufacturer of substandard food but book sellers of such items in prosecution.

He said adulteration is both intentional and unintentional. It is unintentional when one does not aware of the offence and intentional when done out of ulterior motive. In both the cases, it must be treated as a draconian crime, which silently implodes in public health. In bludgeoning rise in product lines-a turnaround facet of consumerism nationwide-quality control wing of CDGK with small numbers of food inspectors in particular and conformity assessment of PSQCA with responsibility of surveying for all products in general can not impede growth of substandard food items. Therefore, it is advised to increase numbers of staff for field operation to reduce instances of inhumane food sales.