Behind closed doorsGovt should tighten the Food Act
Nanglo Bakery Cafe, one of the most loved and reputed restaurants of the Capital, has come under scrutiny for selling substandard food. On Monday, the Department of Food Technology and Quality Control (DFTQC) raided the bakery’s Sanepa production plant after receiving complaints from consumers. During the raid, the authorities not only found that the bakery products were unhygienic, but also that the plant itself was operating without a licence. And so, they have sealed the plant.
The issue of substandard and contaminated food in the market has been a chronic one in Nepal. In 2011, when it was revealed that some of Kathmandu’s favourite sweet shops were making Gudpak, a popular sweetmeat, out of foul ingredients and that other sweet shops were using ghee made out of animal fats, the public was outraged and the government woke up to the deteriorating food quality in the market. Since then government inspections have increased.
Recently, when the Kathmandu Metropolitan City inspected shops and eateries around the Capital, on the very first day, it found eight meat shops and one sweet shop to be selling unhygienic products, and after a few days, seized over 500kg of rotten meat from “fresh houses” in Sundhara. But the problem of substandard food items is not merely limited to a few shops. Last month DFTQC filed cases against 51 national and multinational companies for producing and trading in adulterated or substandard bottled water, edible oil, bread, cold drinks and dairy products.
Adulterated or substandard food is a risk to public health and therefore a serious matter. And although government crackdowns have increased over the years, government agencies lack teeth and sincerity when it comes to punishing those involved in selling substandard food. According to the Food Act 1966, those selling food items without a licence are fined Rs 1,000, low-quality products with minimal impact to health are fined Rs 5,000 and manufacturers of inedible foods that severely affect human health or pose risk of death are fined up to Rs 10,000 and sentenced to two to three years in prison. This is a mere slap on the wrist. However, according to the Consumer Protection Act 1998, producers or suppliers of goods and services which threaten the lives of consumers can be sentenced to 14 years, or fined up to Rs.500,000 or both. But most of the perpetrators are only tried under the Food Act, and in many cases, only made to shut their businesses “till they improve conditions”. This needs to change.
The concept of business, at least in part, is based on the trust between the consumers and the sellers. Consumers need to be more aware and avoid establishments that are dishonest. While the state has the primary obligation to prosecute foul practices, social pressure combined with business losses can incentivise good behaviour. For its part, the government needs to either tighten the Food Act or implement the stricter Consumer Protection Act more often.
Private sector organisations such as the Federation of Nepalese Chambers of Commerce and Industry also have a responsibility to rein in their members’ outrageous exploits.