You may have noticed that even after being careful about our food habits, many of us tend to get stomach infections and food poisoning on a regular basis.
We don’t know if the water or milk that we drink or the vegetables and meat products we consume are safe. Time and again, we get to hear reports about pesticide laden food products in the market. Are they the primary cause of our deteriorating health? To seek answer to such anxieties, The Week spoke to Shobha Basnet, Managing Director at Zest Laboratory, Bhaktapur, who briefed us about food quality in Nepal and its effects on our health.
Does the quality of the food we consume affect our health?
What you eat is certainly going to reflect on your health. As a consumer it is your right to know about the quality of the products you use.
Consuming food with heavy metal contents and toxins or food products infected with pathogens is extremely hazardous. A good quality product should fulfill the adequate nutritional requirements and should be free from toxins.
In Nepal, everything you consume is unregulated. From the packaged food to the food cooked in your own kitchen, everything may contain hazardous elements. Our farmers are unaware of the harmful effects of insecticides and pesticides and they use these toxins in abundance. The quality of most dairy products is never checked. Today most households in Nepal have at least one cancer patient. One of the main reasons for this is definitely the quality of food consumed by Nepalis.
How do I know if a product is safe to use?
In Nepal, organizations like Nepal Bureau of Standards and Metrology are supposed to regulate the quality of food being sold in the market.
However, ensuring quality of a product is only a formal procedure done by most businessmen to get the permit to sell their products in the initial stage. The legal permit or the certification is then used in numerous batches of production for many more years.
Till now, there is no mechanism in Nepal that checks the quality of food products in the market on a regular basis. In most commodities, you may not even see a sign to ensure that the product is quality assured. In such conditions it becomes extremely difficult for a consumer to recognize if a product is safe to use. Most of the vegetables that we buy are from local vendors and their quality is not assured. The government has to play a crucial role in maintaining strict food quality standards for the safety of its citizens.
Can you talk about some wrongly interpreted consumption habits still prevalent in Nepali households?
Most of us in Nepal do not worry about the fungus that appears in our food. Many assume that the sun drying food technique will make our food completely safe to consume.
If there is a fungal growth on the top layer of our pickle, we often remove the layer assuming that the rest of the pickle is safe to consume. However, some fungus may produce alpha toxin that is extremely harmful for health. Alpha toxin cannot be removed by boiling the food in water or by drying it in the sun. Once consumed, this toxin gets metabolized which is extremely harmful for our health as it can cause tissue damage.
Does Nepal have the technology to conduct standard food quality tests?
There are various well-equipped laboratories in Nepal that can check the quality of food products according to international standards. These laboratories in Nepal can check safety parameters and nutritional components in the food products.
The government of Nepal however has to play a crucial role in making sure that importance is given to food quality assurance.
Does the inferior quality of our products hamper their export in the international market?
In the international frontier, there is a regulated market and an unregulated market. Most of the Nepalis products do not meet the criteria for the regulated market.
Hence, they are exported through other personal means to the unregulated market. Due to this reason, you find Nepali food products only at a few outlets abroad.
Producing good quality products is extremely beneficial for a producer as the profit margin is high in the international market. But one must keep in mind that few products exported to the international market are of good quality. For example, tea that is exported to the developed countries from Nepal is of a better quality than the tea that comes to our homes.
How can we ensure that the food products in our market meet the quality requirements?
There is a threefold solution to this problem. Firstly, it is the primary responsibility of the government to ensure that the food products sold in Nepal are of good quality.
Nepal does have numerous acts, rules, and regulations regarding the quality and standard of food products allowed to be sold in our market. The problem lies in implementation of these acts. Laws and policies are not the only solutions to this problem. There should be effective monitoring and implementation system for these acts.
Secondly, the producers also have the onus of ensuring good public health on their shoulders. The private sector should cooperate with the public sector to guarantee quality assured goods. Thirdly, there is a lack of awareness among the consumers regarding the effects of low quality food products. Consumers of Nepal are mostly concerned about the price of the product rather than its quality.
This is one of the major reasons why producers are compelled to introduce cheap products in the market, compromising on their quality. As I see it, the only solution to this problem is cooperation between the government, producers, and consumers.