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Food for thought for food regulators

Webinar on ‘Halal Industry in Pakistan: Potential and Challenges’ organised very recently by the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FPCCI), has rightly pointed out that the volume of global Halal food trade is more than $3 trillion though Pakistan’s share is barely 0.25 percent and there is a need to increase. As such there is a need to increase Pakistan’s Halal food production and exports of semi-cooked meat, which holds high demand in China and other Far East countries. The government and private sector must take proactive initiatives to explore the true potential of ‘Made in Pakistan’ products and go for a niche in the global market.

The webinar also suggested that it should be made mandatory for all imports of Pakistan to be Halal-certified. Moreover, Pakistan Standards and Quality Control Authority (PSQCA) should be strengthened to fulfil the mandatory standards requirement of other countries.

In this regard the decision of the Council of Common Interest (CCI) is indeed can be termed as a good initiative. As per decision, PSQCA will be the only authorized agency to establish and implement a uniform food standard for all the four provinces of the country, very much like USDA which regulates food safety aspect of packed and branded products in USA. But there is a need to define PSQCA’s mandate in clear terms to avoid confusion and erroneous interpretations. In fact, there is a need to extend the scope of PSQCA so that beside formulating, implementing and monitoring the food safety standards for branded packed food and drinks, it should also take care of various other burning issues, which either need amendments or change.

While PSQCA exclusively regulates the packed and branded foods, district and town administration should regulate the safety standards of restaurants and street vendors selling raw meat and different kinds of cooked and uncooked items, keeping in view the ground realities of the particular district and town.

Here it is pertinent to mention that PSQCA’s responsibility is critically important because unless these issues are resolved Pakistan will continue to lag behind in the ease of doing business. Therefore, it is imperative that PSCQA discusses these issues at length with all the major stakeholders to hammer out a consensual rational and practicable food safety regulations to ensure continuing supply of packed branded food products in the local market that are safe for human consumption.

Some of the burning issues requiring attention of the PSQCA are as follows:

Halal certificate

The government has recently added an encouraging clause in the import policy. According to which the shipment shall be accompanied by a ‘Halal-certificate’ duly issued by the Halal Certification body. But to confirm that imported meat products selling in the local market are Shariah-compliant Halal, the PSQCA must ensure that every Halal-certificate attached with the product explicitly defines that the animals were not stunned before being hand slaughtered by Muslims and were not fed a diet containing pork by-products.

 

Pathogen standard

There is a need to rationalise the imposition of zero tolerance of pathogens in food, because the currently set standards are much higher compared to various other countries — in fact, impossible to achieve. Therefore, there is a need to prepare a comprehensive pathogen reduction programme for step-by-step gradual implementation as being done in the USA. On the other hand the information and guidance label on the packed food must also contain advice about the storage and cooking temperature of food, because temperature control is critical to ensuring food safety.

Sale of used oil

The Punjab Food Authority (PFA) has prohibited the use of used cooking oil in livestock/poultry feed and instead directed to sell used oil only to companies licensed by the PFA to produce/manufacture bio-diesel which is a violation of Free Trade Practice. Needless to add that dividing the market is a violation of the Competition Commission Act. Moreover, it also contradicts the Punjab Animals Feed Stuff and Compound Feed Act, which allows the use of used cooking oil in compound animal feeds. It may further be mention here that used oil is widely used throughout the world in livestock and poultry feed. Moreover, University of Veterinary and Animal Science, Lahore has also endorsed the use of used oil in animal feed. PSQCA must intervene to sort out this issue.

Offences and penalties

Another very important aspect, which needs revision, is of course the introduction of fines and penalties by the Punjab Food Authority, which are highly coercive, harsh and illogical. For instance, according to the existing regulations, if unsafe food somehow results in death of a person, the food operator or manufacturer may get a life term imprisonment and a fine which may extend to three million rupees. In addition the court may direct the food operator to pay compensation to the consumer, in case of injury an amount of five hundred thousand rupees and in case of death one million rupees to the legal heirs. Such kind of punishments may turn out to be counterproductive.

Apart for the above issues the food authority comes up with its own definition of what makes a product safe for human consumption, resulting in messing up the safety standards of processed, value-added food products. For instance, the food authority makes a mockery of itself when it lays down mandatory requirements of proteins and fat in a product and other ingredients to a recipe of meat mixtures or a certain mandatory quantity of meat in the food product. In stark contrast, food regulatory authorities across the world neither lay down nutritional requirements of a product, nor prescribe any hard-and-fast recipe of the meat mixture. Needless to say, such regulations are restrictive for business to flourish and are abhorrently illogical as well.

It may also be mentioned here that for food safety, consumers usually rely on the government to ensure that all food products are safe and are sold as what they claim to contain. To achieve the objective, the food safety authority must compel packaged-food manufacturers and beverage producers to duly label their products and give complete information about the ingredients used in the product. In a word, a regular collaboration and coordination between the stakeholders will ensure effective implementation and enforcement of food safety standards across the country.

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