Government prepares new law to ensure food qualityBut existing mechanisms and human resources are not enough to implement stringent measures it envisages, say consumer rights activists and officials.
The government last week registered a bill in Parliament on food purity and quality with stern penalties against producers and sellers of substandard and adulterated food.
But provisions of the bill, to be tabled during the winter session of Parliament, can’t be implemented with existing mechanisms and human resources, consumer rights activists and officials working on food quality say.
“We do need strong law, however, ensuring adequate human and other resources is equally important,” Ishwor Subedi, director at the Department of Food Technology and Quality Control , told the Post referring to the bill that proposes up to five years of imprisonment and half a million rupee in fines for those found producing or selling substandard foodstuff.
The penalty is significantly higher than those prescribed by the prevailing Food Act which sets a maximum penalty of six months of imprisonment and Rs 5,000 in fine.
If the new bill becomes law, food inspectors will have to shoulder the responsibility of ensuring that foodstuffs produced and sold in the market are safe for consumers. The new legislation also authorises inspectors to control the production, import and supply of food, and collect samples of foodstuff to send it for lab-testing.
They can also investigate and collect information regarding suspicious food items from the producer or the supplier. In collaboration with the local administration or the local government, they can halt the supply of food that can cause harm to human health.
However, there is an acute shortage of the food inspectors in the market for 30 million people across the country. The Department of Food Technology and Quality Control employs just 30 food inspectors—one for every million population—to cover the whole country.
For example, the regional office in Bhairahawa covers 16 districts, but only has two food inspectors. They are so overwhelmed that they can’t even visit all districts under their jurisdiction in a given year. “We are under-resourced to perform our duties in the 16 districts,” Shrawan Dhungana, a food inspector working at the office, told the Post. “Monitoring the market as well as testing samples in the lab is beyond our capacity.”
Consumer right activists say while it is good that the bill ensures stern penalties for those selling and producing substandard goods, they doubt that the provisions will be implemented as the government doesn’t have enough food inspectors.
“Laws don’t get implemented on their own. The effective implementation of the new law won’t be possible with the present set of staff,” Jyoti Baniya, chairperson at Forum for the Consumer's Right Nepal, told the Post. “The number of food inspectors we have now is 100 times fewer than needed.”
Baniya said the government’s move to appoint just one food inspector for a million population makes a mockery of the people’s right to consume quality food.
Department officials also say that if the government plans to increase the responsibility of the food inspectors through the new law, it should also recruit more inspectors to cover the entire country.
“I would urge the government to equip our central and provincial offices by the time the new law is in place,” said Subedi. “We should have at least one food inspector at each of the 753 local units for them to perform the jobs as envisioned in the bill.