Nepal implements new safety standards for various foodsThe government has also endorsed the quality standards for complementary foods like infant cereals.
The government has implemented new safety standards for various foods and nutritional ingredients in its latest move to prevent food contamination and adulteration in the country.
A Cabinet meeting on December 18 gave the green light to the new standards which will be published in the Nepal Gazette soon, officials said.
In a first, the government has also endorsed the quality standards for complementary foods like infant cereals.
In July, the Food Standard Fixation Committee formed under the Food Act 1967 revised the permissible limits for heavy metals in various foods, and set new guidelines for infant cereals. The move was intended to bring them in line with international standards.
According to Matina Joshi Vaidya, director general of the Department of Food Technology and Quality Control, this is the first time the standard for complementary food for infants and young children has been specified.
Earlier, Nepal had only stipulated the standards for milk-based complementary food for infants and young children.
"Strict standards have been created especially for the packaging of infant food," she said.
After the World Trade Organisation (WTO) approved the new quality standards, they were tabled in the cabinet for its go-ahead. The WTO Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures sets out the basic rules on food safety and animal and plant health standards that governments are required to follow.
Sanitary measures concerning human and animal health, and phytosanitary measures concerning plant health, are intended for the betterment of people's living standards.
If food items are found to contain contaminants over the maximum limit, they are considered to be adulterated.
According to the Food Act, if the food does not meet the new standards, action will be taken against the manufacturer. Offenders face a Rs50,000 fine or up to five years of imprisonment or both.
The department conducts market inspections and collects samples to check whether the food products meet the standards.
“The department’s lab is equipped with all necessary measuring machines to check heavy metals in food,” Vaidya said. “Till now, the department has not found excess levels of heavy metals in any food sample.”
The government has fixed the safe limit for nine types of heavy metals—lead, copper, arsenic, tin, cadmium, mercury, methyl, chromium and nickel—in food items.
Dr Ravi Shakya, director of Patan Hospital, said the hospital has been receiving patients who have fallen sick due to lead, arsenic and mercury poisoning.
“As the effects of consuming food containing heavy metals become apparent only gradually, the patient may not show any signs of sickness in the beginning,” he said.
“We received a patient who fell sick after drinking bore water which contained a high level of arsenic,” Shakya said.
He said that arsenic poisoning in the long term slows brain functioning like dementia, and mercury poisoning eventually leads to brain failure.
Lead is a cumulative toxicant that affects multiple body systems, and is particularly harmful to young children.
The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimated that in 2019, lead exposure accounted for 900,000 deaths and 21.7 million years of healthy life lost worldwide due to long-term effects on health. The highest burden was in low- and middle-income countries.
Nutritionists have been saying that children and pregnant women are at high risk for lead exposure.
“Canned food also contains lead, which is banned in many countries; but there is no such restriction in Nepal,” Dr Atul Upadhyay, a nutritionist, told the Post in a recent interview. “In Nepal, women expecting a baby are at high risk for lead poisoning.”
The government has set the maximum limit for lead in fruits at 0.1 mg per kg, and in vegetables and cereal grains at 0.2 mg per kg.
The government has also updated standards for cereal-based complementary foods for infants and young children from six months to three years of age.
The moisture content in baby food should not exceed 8 percent, fat content should not be over 13 percent, and protein content should not be less than 15 percent.
The maximum limit has been set at 56 percent for carbohydrate, 3.0 percent for crude fibre, 300 to 600 mg per 100 gm for calcium and 5.8 to 11.6 mg per 100 gm for iron.
Likewise, it should contain 0.25 to 0.5 mg vitamin B1 per 100 gm, 200 to 720 micrograms vitamin A per 100 gm, and 4 to 12 microgram vitamin D per 100 gm.
Baby food based on energy density should contain a minimum of 4 kilocalories per gm in dry weight, and sodium quantity should not exceed 300 mg per 100 gm, according to the new standards.
Food additives and contaminants, toxins and residues limits in baby food will be fixed by the government.
Regarding heavy metals, the lead content should not be more than 0.2 mg per kg, arsenic not more than 0.05 mg per kg and cadmium not more than 0.1 mg per kg.
The bacteria count in baby food should not be more than 10,000 colony-forming units per gm.
Cereal-based infant food should have production, processing, packaging, handling, storage and supply purity, according to the work procedure determined by the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock Development.
Baby food products should be labelled along with messages about other nutritious food like grain, lentil, fruit, vegetable, egg, fish and meat, among others, including breastfeeding as per the infant's age, according to the new standards.
The package also needs to provide information about whether the goods are a source of nutrition or not, as per the new standards.
The manufacturers need to clearly mention the nutrition elements and nutrition facts on the label, and the information can be conveyed through a bar code or other appropriate methods.