Bangladeshis Need to Guard Against Threat of Toxic Food

by Rajashri on Oct 3 2008 2:32 PM

The Chinese milk powder scandal is nothing new in Bangladesh, where experts believe almost 40% of food produced is contaminated with industry chemicals. Mohammad Aminul Haq inspects a papaya in a central Dhaka food market but soon after picking it up, he returns it to its place on the fruit cart.

"You can tell this has medicine to make it become ripe quicker," the 49-year-old Muslim cleric said of the out-of-season fruit. "It's no good for our health."

Tests this week have confirmed that a brand of milk powder imported into Bangladesh from China was contaminated with the toxic chemical melamine, which has killed four babies in China and sickened more than 53,000.

But Haq said the findings were hardly shocking in a country where health experts say 40 percent of all food is laced with potentially deadly industrial chemicals.

"The government's been very active in testing milk powder imported from China, but they are not paying attention to other tainted products," Haq said.

"There are much worse chemicals than melamine -deadly poisonous chemicals -in our food and drinks."

Bangladeshi authorities have banned some brands of Chinese milk powder in the wake of the health scare, but Shah Mafuzur Rahman, from the Institute of Public Health, said Bangladeshis are regularly exposed to contaminated food.

"Around 40 percent of the food we eat day-to-day is tainted by various chemicals and industrial dyes," he told AFP.

"The food sellers make their goods look more colourful to get more customers. They do this by adding industrial dyes to the food. Some chemicals can cause simple allergies and others can lead to deadly cancers."

In children, side effects of eating the contaminated food include stunted growth and lack of concentration, while adults often suffer damage to their immune systems, he said.

"Metabolic disorder, kidney failure and liver failure are also common, and there is a trend of learning disabilities among children exposed to large quantities of tainted food."

Mohammad Abdul Majid, director of country's elite security forces, said he had stepped up raids on food markets during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and in the wake of the problem in China.

But he admitted the authorities were struggling.

"Food adulteration is rampant here, especially during Ramadan. We've got more troops monitoring the markets, and they're discovering tainted food on a daily basis. We're still finding the banned milk powder for sale," he said.

Another shopper at the market in the capital, Ahmed Hossen, told AFP it was common knowledge that food in Bangladesh was often tainted with chemicals, but people had little choice but to eat it.

"If we wanted to avoid this contaminated food, we'd have to fast not just during Ramadan, but the whole year round," he said.

"Everyone is paying attention to China right now but for us Bangladeshis, living with chemicals in our food is nothing new. We are eating this stuff every day."