A couple of weeks ago Sindh Senior Minister, Nisar Khuhro, while addressing the Consumers’ Association of Pakistan Food Safety and Quality Conference, said that a bill to establish the Sindh Food Authority had in principal been approved by the cabinet. His address and that of others at the conference brought into question the severity of the food safety situation in Pakistan and the commitment of the government towards improving it.
Food safety policies throughout the world have undergone two major changes, one at the start of the twentieth century and one towards its end. The more recent changes in policy were shaped by globalisation and free trade.
The Sanitary and Phytosanitary Agreement (SPS) adopted by the WTO ensures that food safety laws are obeyed down to the smallest detail by countries participating in trade. It also makes sure that food safety laws aren’t used as an excuse for protectionism and recognises that developing countries need assistance in developing food safety systems so that they are not excluded from international trade.
Developed countries are making efforts to maximise scientific and economic research regarding food safety whilst making sure that research and risk assessment is independent of any kind of politicisation. Economics along with science plays a major role in designing these policies. Economists are needed to conduct a cost-benefit analysis which takes into account the socio-economic burden of food borne diseases and the willingness of customers to pay for food safety.
In Pakistan’s current financial year, Rs14m has been spent on Mad-Cow Disease prevention while Rs33.8m has been spent on the establishing and upgrading of animal quarantines. These are the only areas of investment that are more or less related to the issue. Despite the global outlook on food safety, which encourages global coordination in this sector, there is no foreign investment in the country.
It is hard to distinguish food safety from water safety in the country. Waterborne diseases like cholera, diarrhoea and hepatitis A and E are widespread. It was only made obligatory on water companies to mention the composition of water on their cans during the last PPP government, but it is naïve to assume that water, even in major cities, is safe.
Regulation becomes even harder given the size of the informal economy. Illicit practices are rampant and there are many places where tap water is sold in sealed cans to add authenticity. Sub-standard manufacturing of edible items and false information provided to customers deteriorates the already horrendous situation. All provinces other than Punjab, where a food authority bill was passed in 2011, are lacking an efficient system of health inspection in restaurants and hotels.
The fact that most of Pakistan’s food exports are raw rather than processed outlines the unsatisfactory management of food safety along the production line. It is hard to say how effectively this situation can be managed in the coming years.
Whenever food safety policy is implemented, it comes with its costs. These are not just private costs of manufacturing but social costs such as unemployment which are associated with the closure/shifting of manufacturers from one region to another.
It is also important that investment in food safety is subsidised so it does not raise prices significantly, as a raise in prices reduces the willingness of customers to pay. A good place to start would be by collecting data that shows the economic burden of food borne diseases which includes the cost of treatment as well as the loss of production hours. This will give a clear idea of the gravity of the situation.