Tuesday, May 28, 2024

No appetite for safety

Ensuring the storage of fresh food is a challenge now that midsummer days and nights are upon us. In a place where the use of refrigerators is largely limited to urban areas, the risk of food contamination runs high. That is not to suggest that the urban areas are safe. For example, raw meat items are publicly displayed in meat markets without the use of freezers, all day long on tables and showcases. Restaurants, sweet shops and eateries are no better since they are tempted to showcase their food offerings to draw in consumers. Food served in restaurants may appear appetising to the eye, but many do not follow the correct food safety procedures, which can be damaging to our health in the long run. In addition to the apparent heat-related risks, the open display of food products invites bacteria and dust contamination, which ~ in addition to malnutrition ~ could cause a host of ailments like cholera and food poisoning. Food safety, nutrition and food security are inextricably linked. Food-borne diseases impede socio-economic development by straining healthcare systems, impairing productivity and harming economies, tourism and trade. Although we have food safety regulations in place, the lack of implementation and monitoring continues to pose the risk of food-borne diseases to the public. Last year, an official of the State’s Health Department went on record saying that Nagaland is not a dustbin for adulterated and sub-standard products from within and outside the country. We have the Food Safety and Standards Act of 2006 that prohibits the sale and distribution of adulterated foodstuff and sub-standard foodstuff. However, apart from poor implementation of such regulations, the monitoring of the regulations, too, is almost non-existent. Poor regulation and sketchy monitoring, when it comes to food items, is indeed a trait across the country. Much of the food we eat may be more detrimental to our health than we know. This was the key finding of the 2022-23 State Food Safety Index (SFSI), prepared by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI). It showed a general decline in State food-safety scores over the past five years. The FSSAI started the survey in 2018-19 as an annual evaluation of States and Union Territories to create a competitive and positive change in the country’s food-safety ecosystem. The State and the Health authorities cannot remain a mute spectator when the health of the citizens is put at risk due to the carelessness of vendors and hoteliers. Rather, the State should strictly maintain food safety standards regularly ~ not in an episodic pattern, such as during festivals or at the whims of authorities but as a standard practice. Some basic steps include making it mandatory for vendors to keep appropriate food items in freezers, use covering and segregate food items to avoid cross-contamination. As the culture of eating out is becoming increasingly common, especially among young people, the State should actively enforce food preservation and safety regulations to keep the citizens healthy. That being said, the regulatory bodies in the State have remained ineffective and non-functional for decades. Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) research found that, on average in the past five years, one out of four food samples tested by the nodal agency was not conforming to standards. Food counterfeiting has also become an issue. Without proper safety-checks and necessary infrastructure, we can only imagine the scenario for Nagaland. Therefore, the absence of political will to safeguard the health of citizens is baffling, to say the least. On top of that, a tepid culture of consumer rights and awareness makes matters worse for us here. Food consumers here must know ~ and be given the right to know ~ the truth about the nature of the edibles they desire. Needless to say, the Government must facilitate such knowledge. Strong regulations, backed by a well-funded monitoring system, are urgently needed to ensure that only quality and safe-to-consume food items are sold to the citizens. For that to happen, our Food Safety authorities need to be woken up from their long undisturbed sleep.