Food safety in Pakistan: we are what we eat
With the food trade currently valued at more than $600 billion per year according to the World Trade Organization, we live in a world increasingly concerned with food supply with little attention to its quality and safety. In the US alone, an estimated 5,000 people die annually due to contaminated food. Globally, 2.2 million die due to food-borne diseases and 1 in 10 fall ill after consuming contaminated food. That means almost 600 million people in the world fall prey to unsafe food with children under five making up about 40% of this number.
Food’s biological, chemical and physical contamination is a threat to the health and economic growth of any society, and particularly in Pakistan, the increased prevalence of pathogens has become quite common.
Here, a rapidly increasing population has limited the economic potential of the individual and state through a tendency among manufacturers and traders to intentionally debase and devalue food commodities to make profit. In recent years, there have been numerous reports of adulteration in food, especially dairy items, with chicken feed injected with high doses of hormones and vegetables watered with mechanical and industrial waste.
Previously, the culprits in food-borne epidemics in Pakistan used to be relatively local, and involved problems with food preparation. However, with the rise of eating out of the home and an increase in the consumption of fresh produce, that has changed.
In recent years, there have been numerous reports of adulteration in food, especially dairy items, with chicken feed injected with high doses of hormones and vegetables watered with mechanical and industrial waste.
Dr. Mehreen Mujtaba
Now, the design and location of the food-processing facility matters. Areas known to be prone to pollution and pests must be avoided. Adequate cleaning, disinfection and maintenance measures for premises and food processing machinery must be mandatory and of course, the personal hygiene standards of the staff in contact with food must be beyond a fault. The addition of food additives, preservatives and flavoring to any article must adhere to laws, and the wrappers, packaging material and containers be of food-grade material.
Ms. Awilo Pernet, chairperson of Codex Alimentarius Commission or “Food Code” which is a part of the WHO Food Standards Programme, said in her keynote address in Pakistan in 2017 that the effective implementation of food safety and standards “empowers national products to reach international markets.” In her view, the first step toward economic growth for Pakistan was putting food safety and national food rules on the political agenda.
Last week, news broke that five children from a single family had died of food poisoning in Karachi. Though the cause of death is still uncertain, the story sparked outrage and investigations into the abysmal food hygiene standards in Pakistan’s largest city.
Pakistan should aim for a National Food Council at the federal level. It is imperative that the handling, preparation and storage of food is carried out according to internationally recommended standards in order to avoid unnecessary loss of life, to protect our children, our health care system, our economic dignity and the sanctity of sustenance itself. If we are what we eat, then at this moment Pakistan is fast hurtling toward a rotting center that could cripple the health of all its progressive campaigns.
— Dr. Mehreen Mujtaba is a freelance consultant working in the area of environment and health. She has a keen interest in Climate Change and its impacts on population health and human security.