Collaborating for Safer Food- Bangladesh Food Safety Network
|Millions of mostly poor people in Bangladesh suffer from foodborne illness each year, which causes death and disability, huge economic loss and harms the development of children. The government has taken steps to improve food safety, but the changes do not go far enough because of limited resources. Dozens of independent groups have stepped in to address the problem, showing mixed results. Now a massive collaboration between civic groups and government points the way forward. |
|For people in Bangladesh, knowing what foods are safe to eat presents a complex challenge. Danger lurks on both sides of the market: fresh and packaged food may contain microbial contaminants that cause illness or death; even when safe food comes home, many kitchen cooks lack access to refrigerators or soap and unwittingly spread foodborne pathogens. In urban areas, such as Bangladesh’s main city of Dhaka with 15 million residents, street vendors operating small, unregulated carts feed millions of people daily offering no guarantee of safety, with approximately one in six people becoming ill after eating out.1 Symptoms typically begin several hours to several days after ingesting unsafe food, with the most common symptoms being nausea, abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, headache or fatigue.|
However, bacterial and viral pathogens are not the only challenges faced by Bangladeshis. Their food is also likely contaminated with heavy metals and pesticides or other chemicals from production and processing. These contaminates cannot be washed off. Some victims of food poisoning also suffer long-term effects including cancer, kidney disorders and birth defects in subsequent children.
Children under age five in Bangladesh are at greatest risk from eating unsafe food, which causes at least 18% of deaths in children and 10% of deaths in adults in a country of 170 million people, according to the most recent 2006 data from the World Health Organization (WHO).2
One step forward, two steps backward
The problem of food safety in Bangladesh is enormous and complicated to address. The government struggles to meet its responsibility for ensuring a safe food supply with limited resources. Progress occurs incrementally at best, and despite legislation, people continue to fall ill and demand further action. Independent groups—such as religious organizations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and intergovernmental organizations—have stepped in and provide alternate ideas on how to improve food safety. However, these groups end up at times competing with each other for international development aid funds and attention from local people.
In 2009 Bangladesh’s parliament passed the country’s first-ever consumer protection laws that cover food safety and security. New standards include: requiring labels on food, creating safety testing standards, monitoring products for chemical and microbial hazards, and holding producers accountable by levying fines for violations.
A typical rural kitchen (above) and an urban kitchen (below) in Bangladesh. They are generally private, except in slums, and lack access to refrigeration or clean tap water. Most people eat their meals sitting on the ground on mats.
Credit: SK Roy of ICDDR,B et al 2011
Yet unsafe food remains a major challenge in Bangladesh. The government lacks funding to effectively manage the food supply chain, or to hire and train technicians and inspectors, who would enforce the law, according to Satya Sharma, regional project officer based in Malaysia covering Asia, the Pacific and the Middle East for Consumers International, an NGO organization based in the U.K.
Several other key factors contribute to ongoing food safety risks in Bangladesh. People, animals, and food products increasingly move across geopolitical boundaries into cities, with markets and jobs driving the rapid pace of urbanization. The population of Dhaka City is projected to reach 22 million by 2020, with many expected to migrate from surrounding rural areas in search of work. Urbanization results in greater food insecurity caused by decreased farming, which is further compounded by cycles of drought and flood, and overfishing—all of which degrade the diet of a nutritionally challenged, yet, growing population. Cultural practices around food buying confound safe food practices because men tend to control the food-buying decisions, while women tend to prepare the meals unable to select the freshest items or avoid problematic vendors. Fewer than 20% of Bangladeshi’s have access to a refrigerator or clean drinking water from a tap. New pathogens, such as the Nipah virus that passes from pigs to humans, emerged in Southeast Asia in the 1990’s and add to the already high burden of disease.
English translation of a popular public education poster explaining to home cooks in Bangladesh the basics of food safety. Click here to view larger image.
Credit: SK Roy of ICDDR,B et al 2011
|For poor families, the reality is heartbreaking. The nutritional status of many young infants deteriorates with advancing age, many of whom fail to thrive because of malnutrition exacerbated by diarrhea, according to the results of a 2007 study published by Swapan Kumar Roy, PhD, a senior scientist at ICDDR,B an international health research organization located in Bangladesh. Roy’s findings from a 2011 study of 780 poor families show that there is a disconnect between household hygiene and practices required to ensure safe food. |
For example, equal numbers of people surveyed in the 2011 study think washing a knife that cut raw meat with ash and mud is as effective as cleaning as washing it with soap. Washing with ash was also more prevalent (48%) than soapy water (33%).
In response to the lack of government progress and a crushing burden of foodborne illness, dozens of independent organizations have focused their work on food safety in Bangladesh. Up until recently, many of the groups did not work effectively with each other or the government. Worse, they vied for the same international aid grants.
“Each group was doing its own projects with little coordination between them, but the problem is bigger than any individual group. We realized that we needed to improve collaboration in order to affect change on a society-wide level. In 2010, we found a way to increase collaboration, and we organized a large meeting. There we formed the Bangladesh Food Safety Network or BFSN. Now eighty-three civil groups collaborate with the government to improve food safety,” explains Sharma, who helped organize the meeting of civil food safety advocacy groups in Dhaka in 2010, where groups officially formed the BFSN.
But coordinating 83 civil groups to work together on food safety presents a major challenge. All of the member organizations maintain missions and activities separate from the Network. At the same time, they contribute whatever skills and expertise are needed within the Network to improve food safety. The groups decided to create a steering committee to help oversee operations and accountability of the Network that includes five civil organizations active in food safety: B-Safe, Consumers Association of Bangladesh (CAB), Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon (BAPA), Unnayan Bikalper Nitinirdharoni Gobeshona (UBINIG), and FAO Food Safety Project Bangladesh. One of the steering committee’s priorities is to encourage organizations to join the Network, which enhances the group’s credibility and resources, and therefore, helps to draw more groups into active involvement. The steering committee decides where larger pools of resources coordinated by the Network can then be applied most effectively at all levels of society, from grassroots to policy.
The goals of the BFSN apply to both sides of the industry. Food producers and distributors require updated infrastructure, industry codes and standards, and enforcement. Food consumers require better labeling, improved sanitation, and effective methods of communicating safe food handling practices. Modernizing the Bangladesh food system would be impossible without outside help because the government lacks adequate funds. The government of Bangladesh collected $6.6 billion in total tax revenue to fund the entirety of government services in 2009; that’s the equivalent of only $41 per person—not adequate to match or replace the combined expenditures of member organizations in the BFSN. Collaboration with civil and non-governmental organizations presents the surest path forward.
Sweet Taste of Success
One of the early successes of the Network is a rural consumer education campaign about safe food handling practices. Group members coordinated production of TV and radio ads, booklets and posters that explain to consumers the basics of food safety at home.
“’Washing of hands and utensils with soap and safe water' is one of the messages on food safety delivered to a typical family in Bangladesh, and it’s encouraging to see posters with these kinds of hygiene messages hanging in kitchens,” explains Ahmad Ekramullah, project coordinator for the Consumers Association of Bangladesh.
One popular kitchen poster covers the steps to effective hand washing, and it was prepared and distributed through collaboration between the FAO Food Safety Project and the BFSN. Another popular poster explains the Five Keys to Safe Food, which include keeping raw meats separate from vegetables and storing and serving food at correct safe temperatures. The poster was created by the WHO and then reproduced in a Bengali translation by the Food Safety Program of the Institute of Public Health, a Bangladesh government institute dealing with public health concerns. Many people like the posters because they are both colorful decorations and useful reminders, according to Ekramullah.
A popular educational poster written in Bengali explaining to home cooks the basics of food safety. Click here to view English translation.
Credit: World Health Organization
The Network also has begun to lobby for legislation in parliament to increase national food safety standards and ensure monitoring. They drafted food safety codes, known as "Good Agricultural Practices" (GAP), aimed at promoting the safe production and supply of agricultural foods. GAP sets up standards for crop quality, and BFSN has submitted them to the government for approval.
The hope is that the legislation, when implemented, will assure fewer contaminants in the food of families like those interviewed by Roy.
“Access to safe food is a basic consumer right, and collaboration between civil groups and government is the best way to transform that right into reality for the millions of mostly poor people in Bangladesh,” says Sharma.
1NFPSCP, Feb 2010 7:07
2Bulletin of WHO, March 2006
Compiled with support from the Rockefeller foundation and the University of Minnesota (UMN) using source material from individuals and organizations noted in the story; writing by UMN staff members; and, the professional reporting and writing services of Genevive Bjorn.
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