More checks and controls needed to stop food containing harmful substances entering and leaving the country
From The Sunday Leader - by Hafsa Sabry
Despite continuous warnings to the Export Development Board (EDB) by the Australian government that chillie paste exported to Australia from Sri Lanka contains harmful chemicals, questions have been raised as to why the authorities concerned continue to import red chillies from India.
As Sri Lanka does not produce the country’s entire requirement, red chillies have been imported from India over the past several years. According to reports, it is these red chillies that contain toxic chemicals due to the usage of highly toxic herbicides in chillie cultivation in India. It has now been revealed how red chillies imported from neighbouring India pose a health risk to consumers and questions have been raised as to why the Food Control Unit of the Health Ministry adopts a deaf and dumb attitude instead of carrying out random checks to see whether low quality and highly toxic products are entering the country.
“What is the use of having a Food Control Unit in the Health Ministry if they do not check the quality of the food that comes to the country?” a Health Ministry official said on condition of anonymity.
It is learnt that the Australian government has warned its citizens against consuming chillie paste products from Sri Lanka as high levels of toxins had been identified by the Australian authorities and chillie consignments had been sent back to the country. Sri Lankan chillie paste is produced from the dried chillie imported from India.
According to Head of Food Research, Agriculture Department, Dr. S. Hewage, most food products are subjected to quality checks before being shipped overseas.
Although the Australian government had sent these food consignments back to Sri Lanka, it is very rare that such exported foods are returned as we make sure that contaminated or quality-failed food items are not exported, Dr. Hewage said.
Dr. Hewage further said that the exporters should get export approvals from the Industrial Technology Institute (ITI) for their products.
Most of the food items that are exported are tested from the standard laboratories of the country. That does not mean that every single product gets the necessary approval but still there are small scale companies or individual traders who do not get the necessary approval for their products; this has to be stopped immediately. It is the Export Development Board (EDB) that should act on these lapses to ensure that all food items that are exported have received the necessary clearance for exportation. In the same manner, the Food Control Department of the Health Ministry should ensure that the food items that enter the country too are not health hazards, Dr. Hewage added.
Since Sri Lanka too produces toxic food as a result of usage of toxic pesticides and weedicides, new regulations were brought to minimise the usage of highly toxicity pesticides in cultivation. As a remedial measure, the Department of Agriculture banned highly toxic weed killers such as Carbo-Furan.
The Department of Agriculture has also taken measures to introduce new agricultural practices and methods amongst the farmer communities to ensure a proper pre-harvest interval of two weeks before harvesting and the non-use of pesticides during this period.
Be that as it may, the Food Control Unit’s failure to test imported food products for toxic and chemical substances has raised eyebrows and Health Ministry sources said their failure to check medicines imported to the country too has become a serious issue.
“Most of these drugs are produced by cottage industries and are sub-standard. Since these medicines are not so expensive, Sri Lanka continues to import these drugs which are not checked upon arrival in the country. That is one of the reasons why certain stocks of saline and IV drugs had to be withdrawn from hospitals as glass particles were found in them. How many instances there have been in the past when certain medicinal drugs had to be recalled by the Health Ministry from hospitals due to their sub-standard qualities? sources alleged.
According to Dr. Hewage, the Agricultural Department, the Export Development Board (EDB) and the Food Control Department of the Health Ministry encourage exporters to export food products of quality standards. It is not properly implemented by the Health Ministry and Port officials during importation; however, when we export food items to other countries the relevant departments and even Sri Lanka Customs should check whether the necessary clearances have been obtained to export food products. If the foreign countries keep on sending back our products due to due to low standards or toxic contamination it is not good for the country, Dr. Hewage added. He however said that there have been no such issues in the food items produced in Sri Lanka.
Dr. Hewage further stated that even imported fruits and vegetables have to be tested for toxic chemicals. Samples are checked by the ITI which is one of the very expensive laboratories in the country. It costs nearly Rs. 18,000 for a test and it is the government and not the importer who pays for it.
Dr. Hewage explained how a stock of mukunuwenna leaves was sent back from a European market as pesticide residue had been detected.
“Only a few stocks were returned; not the entire consignment,” Dr. Hewage claimed.
Meanwhile the Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) has started raiding imported fruit stocks with complaints that some were found to be rotten.
Chairman CAA, Hasitha Thilakaratne told The Sunday Leader that the CAA will also conduct tests to find out whether chillie past products sent back by the Australian authorities contain harmful toxic chemicals.
“There are other authorities to look into this specific issue as the CAA has no power to act against the exportation that was detected with chemicals. The Food Control Department in the Health Ministry and the Department of Agriculture are the authorities who have the power to act on this particular issue as the CAA is not represented in the process of importation and exportation. Representatives from the Health Department and Public Health Inspectors help the CAA to check whether the consumable products that are available in stores are of the best quality and whether the expiry days have lapsed,” Thilakaratne said.Thilakaratne further said the CAA had raided certain rice stores where rice from Pakistan had passed the expiry date and acted against the traders on behalf of consumers. We look forward to being represented in importation of food as well to prevent any such incidents occurring in the future, Thilakaratne added.
According to Thilakaratne, it will be a serious issue if products containing chemicals and highly toxic substances are released into the market without being checked and the CAA will act against such imports in future.
Meanwhile Shrimathi Narandeniya of the Sri Lanka Exports Development Board (EDB) told The Sunday Leader that the exporter should have the ISO 22,000 certification and the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points HACCP. “There should be proper regulations which should be strictly implemented not only when exporting but also when importing food items as well. The good and low quality products cannot be easily detected as they contain aflatoxin, toxic compounds produced by certain moulds found in food, which can cause liver damage and cancer. It is disheartening to know that the importers import low quality products for a lower price which should be regulated by the relevant authorities of the country as they can cause serious illness, she added.
When asked whether the National Plant Quarantine Service has any authority to check the food that enters the country, Dr. Jayantha Senanayake said that their responsibility is to prevent the spread of dangerous pests within the country and the development of treatment technologies to eradicate pests of quarantine importance.
We have no authority to check these products, Dr. Senanayake said.