The Bhutan Food and Drug Authority, after finding Aflatoxin M1, a substance that contaminates milk, beyond the permissible limit in some imported milk brands, held meetings with importers to familiarise them on the import requirements. 

The authority will discuss existing import guidelines within mandatory standards and the way forward “in the interest of protecting public health.” The authority will control imports from July 1. All imports after that will be subjected for testing for Aflatoxin M1. 

Aflatoxin M1 contaminates milk and makes consumption potentially dangerous, especially for infants. After the notice from the authority (or maybe a coincidence), there is a shortage of a specific popular milk brand in Thimphu. Grocery stores say there is shortage from the source. 

Milk is an essential part of our food and a good source of calcium, other vitamins, and minerals. Without sufficient  availability of natural milk, many rely on imported packaged milk. If it is contaminated or contains harmful chemicals, the impact will be huge. Not many would care when authorities say there is Aflatoxin M1 in the milk we drink. Many will not even bother as they will not understand what is in the milk they drink or feed their children.

In Bhutan, the dependence on authorities can make the difference. Through ban on import of contaminated products or making them unavailable to the masses, they could protect the public from possible health hazards. Before the issue of milk contamination, the same authority checked the permissible limit of ethylene oxide, which causes cancer, in Indian spices used extensively in our dishes. While the same spice imported from the same source was banned in many countries, authorities found the content of the cancer causing chemical to be under permissible limit.

The BFDA is, as expected, conscious of what is contained in the food we import. It will continue to play an important role in ensuring the safety of imported food we consume. For import-dependent Bhutan, it is more important that the authority is proactive in assessing, testing and warning people about the quality of food they consume.

Regulating imports, especially food, is important. Local food industries trying to penetrate even the neighbouring Indian market are finding it an uphill task to meet import regulations. Some are for safety, some could be to protect local manufacturers. For instance, Bhutan is known for our fresh and clean water. Not even one manufacturer could penetrate the Indian market.

On the other hand, our market is flooded with cheap imports, some known to be harmful to health. Why should we, for instance, let the import of the numerous varieties of pan masalas that a source of non-degradable waste mouth cancer. A visit to a pan shop would show what Bhutanese, especially children, consume.

As importers try to compete and bring in varieties of goods from as many countries, many of us are not aware of what we are consuming. Some of the food items sold in our grocery stores have labels that we can’t read. Labels on food products specify the ingredients, calories and nutrition. We consume everything that is made available to us. 

This is where our authorities can come in to ensure the safety of the public.