Food adulteration offences rise even during lockdownAs long as consumers consider food adulteration a minor problem and the government plays down its impact, such offences will keep growing, rights activists say.
Food adulteration is widespread in Nepal with a long list of food items ranging from milk, dairy products, spices and water to tea, edible oil and lentils found to be contaminated with unhealthy ingredients, officials said.
Unscrupulous traders seemed to have been busy even during the lockdown debasing food products and selling them to unsuspecting Nepalis. When the coronavirus pandemic hit the country last year, the government ordered everyone to be confined indoors for months on end to prevent the spread of the virus. Another lockdown was imposed on April 29 that lasted until September 1 as the infection caseload surged.
But that did not stop dishonest manufacturers from trying to make a quick buck by adding prohibited substances in food products that are consumed by the people, creating a direct threat to public health.
The Department of Food Technology and Quality Control said it had initiated action against 27 companies at different district administration offices and courts in the first three months of the fiscal year (July 15 to October 15). The manufacturers have been charged with mixing illegal ingredients in food products and selling items unfit for human consumption.
Consumer rights activists said the production and distribution of adulterated and expired foods kept rising even during the lockdown period. "This happened because the government was not present in the market," they said.
Conducting a series of market inspections, the department and its regional offices collected 852 samples of food products from across the country during the review period. Among them, 36 samples were found to be adulterated or not fit for consumption.
Consumer rights activists say that as long as consumers consider food adulteration a minor problem and the government plays down its impact on the health system, such offences will keep growing.
"There are three tiers of government in Nepal, and all of them have been mandated to conduct market inspections. Despite all that legal clout, food adulteration has kept on spreading," said Prem Lal Maharjan, president of the National Consumer Forum.
“We don’t feel any presence of the government in the market. The market is functioning or is controlled by powerful traders.”
Maharjan said the existing Food Act 1967 was very weak.
“As the District Administrative Office is one of the agencies responsible for judging market malpractice cases, nobody bothers to file a case even if they are cheated. There is so much bureaucracy that nobody even knows what verdict has been passed.”
Among the companies taken to court by the department, Nepal Tea Development Corporation of Charpane, Jhapa faced action for using labeling on its tea packages that were not as per the standard.
Kalika Dairy, Bhaktapur was charged with producing or selling adulterated curd. Tanahu-based bread factory Krishna Pauroti Udyog violated labelling rules and Om Kailash Dhara Oil Mill of Bara was caught for selling low quality mustard oil.
Action was taken against Aqua Nepal Bisleri, a Rupandehi-based drinking water factory, for producing or selling adulterated water.
Aashirbad Agro and Foods, Nawalparasi was found producing or selling low quality spices, Rajdhani Dairy housed in the Patan Industrial Area was found producing and selling adulterated processed milk, and Nepal Pellet Feed Industry of Bidur was charged with producing and selling adulterated chicken feed.
Buttabari Tea in Jhapa was found producing and selling low quality tea.
“Hearings in most of the cases are in progress at different district administrative offices and courts,” said Matina Joshi Vaidya, director general at the department.
“We do not know much about the action taken on the cases we have filed,” she said. “The department does not even have a record of the verdicts passed by the district administration offices or courts.”
The government report said that nine cases were filed against milk and dairy related product makers, five against producers of spices, five producers of lentil and food items made from it, and three processed drinking water producers.
Two cases have been filed against tea producers, and one case each has been filed against sauce, edible oil and animal feed companies.
Officials at the department said consumer cases never get priority as the district administrative offices and courts are busy in other cases most of the time.
“So it takes a lot of time to get verdicts on consumer related cases,” said Maharjan.
Three years have passed since the amended Consumer Protection Act 2018, which contains a provision requiring the government to establish a consumer court, was endorsed. But there are no indications of a consumer court being set up.
“This shows how serious the government is about ensuring the rights of consumers,” activists said.
The government has requested the Ministry of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs to form a consumer court, and a draft of the work procedure has been prepared.
Vaidya said a consumer court would be formed according to the Consumer Act while the Food Act is itself a specialised act, and the actions taken against various firms were taken as per this law.
She added that the Food Act does not specifically mention expired food products, due to which the action taken against offenders seems lenient.
Last July, the government registered a bill to amend and integrate laws related to food purity and quality in Parliament. The proposed legislation envisages stern penalties against producers and sellers of substandard and adulterated food.
It has been three years since the draft of the bill was prepared, but it has got nowhere due to the endless political turmoil.
The penalties proposed in the new law are significantly harsher than those prescribed by the prevailing Food Act which sets a maximum penalty of six months in jail and Rs5,000 in fines.
Vaidya said the bill was being discussed at the Legislative Committee of the Upper House.
“The government has not paid much attention to educating consumers about their rights. It doesn't have a budget to do that either.”