Food safety and consumer rights: Are we eating our way to an early grave?

Sri Lanka has a culture that puts food at a higher position and Sri Lanka is known as a nation that is sensitive towards another’s hunger. Needless to say, Sri Lanka’s culture also takes pride in its agriculture sector, which was once so strong that it made the country self-sufficient in rice.

However, in the past few decades, the importation of food items rose while the exportation and production for domestic usage declined. The food items Sri Lankans consume was always a topic due to health and economic reasons.

The recent statement made by Sri Lanka Standards Institute (SLSI) Director General Dr. Siddhika Senaratne on food items that may contain carcinogenic aflatoxins spread like wildfire, resulting in widespread criticism concerning the quality of food items available in the market and the consumers’ rights to know the contents of what they consume in their day-to-day life.

Following Dr. Senaratne’s comments, Co-Cabinet Spokesman and Minister of Mass Media Keheliya Rambukwella said the Government is planning on launching an investigation into Dr. Senaratne’s statement.

While politicians and groups representing consumers opposed Dr. Senaratne’s statements and the overall situation of the quality of food items in Sri Lanka, former parliamentarian Prof. Ashu Marasinghe, on 6 March, filed a Right to Information (RIT) application at the SLSI requesting details about the food items that were alleged to contain toxic substances.

Also, while the quality of food items has been a topic of discussion for some time, it however intensified following the revelation that several local companies had imported coconut oil containing carcinogens known as “aflatoxins”, and that the Sri Lanka Customs had allegedly released the containers of coconut oil to the companies that imported them, to be kept without selling.


Consumer rights

The National Movement for Consumer Rights Protection (NMCRP) said that in light of the recent events concerning the quality of food items, a public discourse on consumer rights and food safety has begun, adding that if steered in the right direction, this discourse would result in positive results.

“However, like other issues, this should not be a concern that fades away in a short period of time,” NMCRP Chairman Ranjith Withanage told The Morning.

He said that when taking into account the situation of other countries, consumer rights of Sri Lankans have not been discussed adequately. He opined that Sri Lanka’s consumers also do not pay enough attention to protecting their rights, especially when it comes to their right to consume food that does not contain toxic substances.

“There are also certain large companies including multinational companies that are attempting to sabotage the people’s fight for consumer rights, as it is not in favour of them,” Withanage said, adding that due to increasing harm caused by such substances, the public has now started thinking about their rights and the quality of the food they consume.

“Raising consumers’ concerns is a good development; however, it is equally important that we continue this discourse and make our points based on concrete, specific facts based on the real situation,” he said.

Speaking on the labels on packaged food items, which, among other things, contain information about ingredients and the nutritional properties of food items, he said that even though this information is supposed to be displayed in a manner that is easy for consumers to read, such information is displayed in small fonts and is therefore almost impossible for the people to read.

He said that even though introducing new measures for the benefit of consumers is of extreme importance, it is also important to ensure that available measures (such as the labels displaying ingredients and nutritional properties) actually help consumers.

“For example, some milk powder packets mention the amount of milk that can be consumed a day. But it is mentioned in extremely small fonts, in a place where nobody notices. But such details should be in a larger font as otherwise it is difficult to see the message despite its importance. But there is reluctance in taking such steps,” he said.

Withanage also alleged that many laws pertaining to consumer rights have been drafted for the benefit of businesses, not consumers. “For example, once a law was introduced requiring that the price of a good should be displayed when advertising; however, the quantity is not shown,” he added.


Quality of imported and locally manufactured food

Meanwhile, Foundation for People’s Rights Protection Media Director Chirantha Amarasinghe emphasised that the same attention paid to ensuring the quality of imported food should be given to locally manufactured food as well.

“Even though there are a number of food items that receive adequate attention as far as their quality is concerned, the quality of a large number of food items such as grains harvested from local farms has gone unchecked,” he alleged.

He also said that due to this, the number of people falling ill, owing to locally manufactured home-cooked food items of inferior quality, has risen in addition to those falling ill due to the prolonged consumption of fast foods.

Adding that Sri Lanka’s agriculture is known to be an industry that uses massive amounts of agrochemicals including pesticides, he noted that consumers should also look into locally manufactured food items that do not have quality certificates.

“There is an attempt to create an opinion that only imported food can cause cancers. In Sri Lanka, there is no proper mechanism to maintain the transparency and accountability of tests done by standards institutions. People should have access to information pertaining to all quality tests. Even if a certain product fails in quality tests, consumers have a right to know what products failed,” he added.


Publicising quality test results

Amarasinghe emphasised the importance of giving consumers an opportunity to know the results of quality tests conducted on food by making them available publicly. “We should understand the fact that a certain food having received standard certificates from a foreign country is not a reason to refrain from conducting quality tests in Sri Lanka,” Amarasinghe added.

He also emphasised the importance of making it mandatory to obtain standards certificates for every locally manufactured good, adding that by doing so, Sri Lanka can not only ensure the availability of quality goods for local consumers, but also export several goods which are currently not export items.

Moreover, he said ensuring transparency in the process of testing the quality of goods should be a priority, adding that the best way to do that is to publicise the test results on the website of the relevant institution, and that it will therefore not give anyone the chance to lie about the test results. He also noted the importance of quality tests being carried out more frequently, adding that steps should be taken to retest every good that has once obtained a standards certificate.

Even though The Morning attempted to obtain further information pertaining to issues pointed out by Withanage and Amarasinghe from the Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA), the SLSI, and State Minister of Co-operative Services, Marketing Development, and Consumer Protection Lasantha Alagiyawanna, they were not reachable for comment at the time of going to press.

However, when contacted by The Morning on 28 March, Alagiyawanna said the State Ministry had, following the recent coconut oil-related issue, taken steps to prevent the recurrence of such incidents.

He said that instructions had been issued to Sri Lanka Customs to keep in the Customs’ possession any imported food item until their quality test results are received. Also, according to the State Minister, attention had been paid to strengthening local quality checks on food items that come with quality certificates issued by foreign institutions.

In addition, he said that similar concerns had arisen with regard to certain other imported food items as well.


Standards/consumer institutions

Both Withanage and Amarasinghe emphasised the importance of state institutions taking strict measures to streamline their services concerning ensuring the quality of food items.

Adding that the consumers’ struggle is neither against the Government nor any particular company, Withanage said that all relevant parties should address these issues collectively, as at the end of the day, the manufacturers need the consumers and vice versa.

Speaking of the authorities tasked with protecting consumer rights, he said that the CAA Act, No. 9 of 2003 clearly states that it should support consumer rights organisations.

“However, thus far, adequate attention has not been paid to consumer rights organisations. Even the SLSI does not reveal important information. It takes several years for the CAA to investigate a complaint filed with it, and such delays on the part of the authorities are also an injustice. In addition, there is no proper co-ordination between state intuitions that are tasked with serving the consumers. Due to this lack of co-ordination, when an issue arises, they keep passing the buck to other institutions,” he alleged.

Amarasinghe, commenting on the SLSI’s role in ensuring the quality of food items, said: “The SLSI has a responsibility to protect consumers, not businesses. They charge money from businessmen, and as a result, they have forgotten who they serve. Why is it not mandatory for locally manufactured milk powder to obtain the SLS certificate. The CAA should also make public information pertaining to the tests they do. That is the best way to ensure that manufacturers pay serious attention to the quality of their products, and other countries have such mechanisms in place. We should also adopt such mechanisms that focus on consumer rights, instead of the potential damage to the manufacturers.”

He further stated that while a product passing quality tests is important, it is equally important that the new regulations are in line with the consumer needs and practical situations. According to Amarasinghe, the quality of food items not being consistent and in step with the consumers’ liking will completely reverse the objective of introducing regulations.

“This is one of the reasons that make people purchase foreign-made goods at a higher price, despite locally manufactured goods being available for a lesser price,” he opined.


Food and children

Food items available for and marketed targeting children is a major concern for all parents, and usually, they are required to be in step with higher standards than other food items.

According to a recent study, titled “Don’t judge by the outer appearance: Food promotion to children through food packages in the Sri Lankan market”, authored by consultant pediatrician and University of Sri Jayewardenepura Faculty of Medical Sciences Department of Paediatrics senior lecturer Dr. Manori Gamage, due to the incompleteness of the World Health Organisation (WHO)-generated Nutrient Profile Model (WHO NPM) for Asia, specifically the Southeast Asian region, health-related claims made and found on food packages have not been regulated.

The study focused on packaging and content analysis marked on the packages of food products, especially those marketed targeting children, and was performed at four leading supermarket chains in Sri Lanka. The study identified 75 products (sold at the said four supermarket chains) as being within the inclusion criteria of the study. Among the said 75 products were 27 breakfast cereal products, 24 milk and milk-based products, and 24 ready-to-eat category food items.

Out of the 75 products, 41 (54.7%) had used attractive packages with cartoon characters to attract children.

There is no strategy to restrict attractive health-related claims made on food packages and also there is no organised regulatory body in Sri Lanka to inspect them and measure their accuracy, according to the study.

In the report, Dr. Gamage also notes the importance of regulating food promotional activities targeting children and raising awareness among the public with regard to the said regulatory criteria in order to enable them to make more appropriate and correct decisions when it comes to purchasing food items for children. Also, such measures would help them report the violation of such criteria.

These were suggested while emphasising that the commonest mode used by supermarkets to attract children for all types of products was the attractive package containing cartoon characters. The next common marketing strategy, according to the study, was attaching gift items and promotional codes on the packages.

Now that the authorities have commenced investigations into the aflatoxins containing coconut oil and other food items said to contain toxic substances, the consumers can keep hope. However, their rights as consumers, as highlighted by those who spoke to The Morning, are not confined to food quality. They should also be aware of other rights concerning pricing and marketing.

To reach a state where consumers do not have to protest or request for their rights and policy and legal changes is also vital.