Food: Food products imported for sale in the country should be labelled either in Dzongkha or English according to the Food Rules and Regulations of Bhutan 2007.
However, it is observed that many imported food products for sale in the market are labelled entirely in a foreign language.
While the food regulation states that any pre-packaged food should be labelled, the Consumer Protection Rules and Regulations 2015 states that where the labelling is in languages other than Dzongkha and English, the same shall be translated into Dzongkha or English and affix to either the product or shelf.
Food labels are meant to provide necessary information about what one is eating. It helps consumers understand what’s in the food they consume to make healthier choices.
It also helps consumers avoid certain contents of the food if they are allergic to any.
Bhutan Agriculture and Food Regulatory Authority’s (BAFRA) focal officer for food safety, Gyem Bidha, said that the authority has been trying to implement the food labelling regulation since 2008. However, implementation of the regulation has not succeeded.
Gyem Bidha said that there are other stakeholders like the Department of Trade, Office of Consumer Protection, the Bhutan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, among others, that BAFRA can work together with to implement the rule.
“We had a series of discussions with the stakeholders to implement the food labelling regulation but we could not come to a concrete solution,” Gyem Bidha said.
According to Gyem Bidha, the authority made importers aware of the food label regulation and gave the importers time to have their imported food products labelled.
They were also informed that goods without proper labelling will be seized if the products did not meet requirements. However, the importers appealed to BCCI about the requirement in February 2010. They complained it would hamper trade.
Gyem Bidha said that one of the suggestions was BAFRA could label the products in English and dzongkha. “As a regulator, it is not the authority’s mandate,” she said. “Moreover, we don’t have the capacity to translate Thai language to English.”
The authority had its last meeting with the stakeholders in January last year.
She said that much of the food products are imported by small-scale businesses and are actually not meant for export. They buy the food products on a small scale from the local markets of Thailand and China, which are labelled in the local languages.
While export quality goods are labelled in English, the prices are higher compared to those available for local consumption.
The authority has requested the trade department to have a pre-requisite condition stating that all imported food products should be labelled either in English or Dzongkha to ensure compliance with the labelling requirement of the Food Act of Bhutan. The authority is yet to hear from the trade department.
Gyem Bidha said that the authority can implement the regulation by removing the goods that don’t fulfil the labelling requirement from shelves but that is not the solution.
One of the reasons the stakeholders are reluctant to implement the regulation is because it could hamper small-scale importers, Gyem Bidha explained.
BAFRA is disposing all expired food items that are made available for sale. “If we are going to allow the imported food items then it is not fair,” she said.
Gyem Bidha said that implementing the regulation is important because it concerns the public health safety.
“It is important for the consumers to know when the food is manufactured, when it expires and what the food product contains, at least,” Gyem Bidha said.
“It may take some time but we will work on it and implement the regulation.”
The Office of Consumer Protection (OCP) deputy chief, Jigme Dorji, said that the consumer protection rules and regulations are complementary in nature and its mandate is to protect consumers from unfair trade practices and for consumer protection.
The office is in an advocacy phase. It is important that people know the rules and regulations before implementing it.
“We are advocating all shopkeepers on all product labelling, not just for food products,” he said.
The Consumer Protection Act was enacted in 2012. OCP was established in 2014 to implement the Act.
An official who did not want to be named said that it is BAFRA’s mandate to look after the quality issue of food products.
“If it is about quantity then the OCP will intervene,” the official said.
An official with the department of trade said that the OCP and Food Act require all food products to have a label in English and dzongkha. “Based on the two provisions, if the two agencies could implement the regulation, the department will support,” the official said.
Pema Deki, a grocery shop owner in Thimphu said that she is aware that products should have a label. However, she did not know that the labelling has to be in English or Dzongkha.
“If we are to affix label on products in English then it is a tedious job,” she said.
Pema Deki added that her customers rarely check the labels, even if they do, it is to check the price.
A consumer, Pema, said that most of the edible items imported from Thailand are labelled in Thai.
“We don’t know the vital information about the foods we consume,” Pema said.