On World Health Day yesterday, Bhutan, or at least some Bhutanese, joined the international community is in observing the day. The theme, ‘Food Safety’ was most relevant at home too.
In Phuentsholing, where the event to mark the day was held, food safety was mostly focused on what is cooked and served. This is important. As the gateway to the country and a commercial hub, people from all walks of life throng Phuentsholing. Not many have relatives or friends to pile on to. Many are left to depend on the food served by the countless eateries. Neighbouring Jaigaon even serves cheaper food. It’s important for those involved in the food business to be mindful of food safety.
But safety of food starts way before it reaches the plate. It starts from the farm. The message is clear that good agricultural practice will reduce food hazards. By good practice, we are referring to not using chemicals in producing healthier and higher yielding crops. Food will be safer if it is grown at farms with no or less chemicals or fertilisers.
But what we don’t know is where most of our food supply comes from. A classic example is the vegetables we buy at the markets. They may look fresh and tender, but only a few suppliers will know how they are cultivated. Unfortunately we import a lot and have no control over how it is grown.
Authorities may have control over what is sold, but how it is grown can only be left to the imagination. Vegetable is a million or even billion ngultrum business. Farmers, even at home, know this. To keep up with demand and lured by the income, good practice is the last thing on their mind. They will only consider how much they can produce and earn.
There are new methods and chemicals to kill pests and weeds as we focus on enhancing production. Not even homegrown food can be considered safe now. How often do we check if the vegetables sold at the centenary market are free of pesticides?
Rapid socio-economic development has given access to an incredible range of extremely harmful food, available at any store in the most attractive packaging. If monosodium glutamate or the favourite tastemaker has become indispensible in our restaurants, we are spoiled for choice when it comes to packaged foods.
Then we have strange food products without labels to know what is inside. In the rush for business, strange goods are imported by the truckloads from so many places. If they are cheap, no one regulates or cares who buys what. That’s why we see children exposed to hazards of food at an early age. The average Bhutanese is consuming more sugar, more oils and fats from tins and plastic containers like never before.
Apart from occasional messages on international days, we don’t see much to educate, or policy decisions to intervene, in making what we consume safe.
The responsibility falls on the educated and the exposed to make the right choices.