Tackling Food Adulteration as a Measure to Ensure Access to Safe Food in Dhaka, Bangladesh
Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh is home to over 21 million residents (as of 2021) and is the most densely populated city in the world, with a density of 47,400 people per square kilometer (Dhaka Tribune, 2018). This teeming population requires that food is produced at an unprecedented rate and yet studies that show that crop production might reduce by 30% by the end of the century due to the impacts of climate change and the rising carbon dioxide emission is going to make Bangladesh’s staple food crop less nutritious (Osmani, et al., 2016).
In addition to these concerns, food adulteration and unsafe food handling practices are major concerns in the local food system. Dhaka City Corporation in 2004 indicated that more than 76% of food items on the market were found to be adulterated and the level of food adulteration varied from 70% to 90%. The Institute of Public Health (IPH), Bangladesh in its recent testing has also found adulteration in 43 consumer goods. The rate of adulteration is 40% in 30 food items and nearly 100% in 13 items. Consumption of these adulterated and unsafe foods is causing serious health risks.
Action Track 1 of the United Nations Food Systems Summit proposes to ensure access to safe and nutritious food for all through the transformation of the food system. Thus, within the framework of the sustainable food system it results from the achievement of three fundamental human rights; these being, right to food, right to safe water and sanitation (essential for safe food), and most importantly right to be free from discrimination, as inequalities in society and the food system have made affordable and healthy diets inaccessible to vulnerable communities (Hendriks, et al., 2020).
With an aim to highlight a greater need to address the concerns of access to safe and nutritious food being denied due to food adulteration and unsafe food handling practices, ICLEI South Asia in collaboration with FAO, Bangladesh conducted an Independent Summit Dialogue on Dhaka’s urban food system, as a run-up to the United Nations Food System Summit 2021 on the 1st of June, 2021. The dialogue was well-attended with participation from representatives of North Dhaka City Corporation and South Dhaka City Corporation, representation from national ministries and regulatory boards, such as the Food Planning and Monitoring Unit, Ministry of Food, Bangladesh National Nutrition Council, and the Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institute, among others.
Specific to the city of Dhaka, a key point of discussion was food adulteration that exists in more than half of daily consumed food items. The dialogue brought to attention that there was a misunderstanding among the consumers on what was considered adulterated food. In the majority of cases, consumers considered the expiry date and quality or freshness of food as a criterion for food adulteration. However, food adulteration is more deep-rooted and includes the use of preservatives and chemicals beyond permissible levels, such as the use of formalin to retain the freshness of fish, harmful dyes and poisonous pesticides used on fruits and vegetables. While traces of food adulteration are found even in food items produced by large food corporations across the country, it was pointed out that a majority of the adulteration takes place during the stage of food processing by small and medium enterprises.
Apart from food adulteration occuring at the processing stage, there are also unhygienic food handling practices that add to the issue of unsafe food. Dhaka is estimated to have 90,000 to 200,000 food vendors who feed close to 60% of Dhaka’s residents. However, they work under very poor infrastructure conditions and lack the knowledge of safe food handling practices. Studies found, 30% of meat shop workers do not have knowledge of zoonotic diseases, 85% and 90% of them do not wear protective coats/aprons and gumboots, and 45% do not know the proper duration of washing hands. 27% of fish retailers suffer from lesions on hands, fingers, toes, and 10% had diarrhea due to the unhygienic and unsafe handling of fish.
Addressing these concerns, the dialogue brought into discussion key action points that should be considered at the level of the city for a safer food system:
- Development of a Standard Operating Procedure for Food Quality Control for small and medium food processing units. These processing units will need to comply with this regulation to ensure a license to operate within the local municipality.
- The current regulatory mechanism in place is that of a ‘mobile court’ that conducts trials based on complaints made to the Food Court under the Food Safety Act 2013 and takes legal action against the food safety offenders on the spot. It was suggested that a more systemic approach should be taken to combat food adulteration. This would entail educating first time offenders by providing advisory notes and guidelines on food adulteration and safety, rather than taking immediate legal and punitive actions.
- As part of their mandate the city municipality should organize regular training on food quality control and handling practices to registered food vendors. Trainers could be technical experts from the ministerial departments of fisheries, agriculture and food processing.
- Public Health Institutions and the public relations department of the city should work together in conducting awareness campaigns on food adulteration and safe food.
Several local and national non for profit organisations over the years have been advocating for greater regulations on food adulteration in the country and the recent Dialogue has brought to the forefront the concern that resonates even at the level of the city and its citizens. It is hoped that through the UNFSS process, similar issues with respect to access of safe and nutritious food in urban regions across the world are highlighted and greater commitments are made for ensuring sustainable urban food systems.
 Dhaka, Bangladesh Metro Area Population 1950-2021 | MacroTrends
 The Daily Star, 11 August 2011
 Rampant Food Adulteration and Its Impacts, The Daily Sun. 24 July 2019
 Present Working Conditions in Slaughterhouses and Meat Selling Centers and Food Safety of Workers in Two Districts of Bangladesh, Md. K. Alam et al, 2020
 Studies on public health and hygiene conditions of retailers at fish markets in south-central Bangladesh, M. M. Alam et al, 2014