Food safety is deemed to be an important issue in Bangladesh as consumers of the country are often victimized due to serious adulteration of food. The Bangladesh government observes February 2 as the ‘National Food Safety Day’ for emphasizing the food safety issue. The constitution of Bangladesh gives importance to food safety and Article 15 of the Constitution states “it is a fundamental responsibility of the state to secure provisions of the basic necessities of life including food.” Article 18 of the constitution states “States shall raise the level of nutrition and improve public health as its primary duties.”
Bangladesh has many laws and regulations to cover some areas of food safety, but the regulatory frameworks and implementation are still weak. Food safety in Bangladesh was earlier regulated by the Bangladesh Pure Food Ordinance, 1959 and the Bangladesh Pure Food Rules, 1967. The Pure Food Ordinance 1959 (amended) in 2005 is repealed by the Food Safety Act 2013 (the Act). The government has also promulgated the Food Safety Rules 2014. The Food Safety Act was enforced on February 1, 2015 by government notification of January 26, 2015. Accordingly under the 2013 Act, the Bangladesh Food Safety Authority (BFSA) has been formed in 2015.
The unique provision of this Act is to establish the Pure Food Court and gives exclusive mandate to the court in ensuring the goals of the Act though the Pure Food Court, which also existed in the Pure Food Ordinance of 1959. This is a stringent and effective law on food governance and justice regulating the food management in the legal scheme. Sections 23 to 44 deal with the offences of the Act which cover all categories of irregularities in food adulteration. Schedule of this Act postulates about the punishment and mode of offence under 23 different heads. The maximum punishment under this Act is five years’ imprisonment and up to Tk 10 lac (1 million). The punishment of every offence, according to the Act and schedule of the Act, will be doubled for any repeat offenders. The punishment is severe and the monetary fine is also huge relative to other laws of the land. Section 60 of the Act determines the cognizable and non-bailable offences.
Now it will be pertinent to focus on the Pure Food Court. According to section 2(4) of the Food Safety Act 2013, “Food Court” means a Pure Food Court to be designated as such under section 64. As per section 64 of the Act which states about the food court, power and jurisdiction that “ (1) There shall be such numbers of courts as may be necessary to be called the Pure Food Court for the trial of offences under this Act. (2) Notwithstanding anything contained in the Code of Criminal Procedure, for the purposes of sub-section (1), the Government in consultation with the Supreme Court may, by notification in the official Gazette, designate any court of 1st Class Magistrate or, as the case may be, in Metropolitan area, the court of Metropolitan Magistrate as Pure Food Court and, if more than one court are designated, shall specify the jurisdiction of each court.”
As the mandate of the Act, the government has empowered Senior Judicial Magistrate Court-1 in district level and more than one court in metropolitan area as the Pure Food Court for trial. By the notification of Law & Justice Division of the concerned Ministry, 71 courts across the country were empowered to try offenses under the Food Safety Act, 2013. It is ironically true that no new pure food court has been established in the country. It was just adding on responsibility to the existing magistrate courts which already suffer under huge burden in regular activities. The BFSA claimed that each court has been assigned a public prosecutor. In practice, we don’t notify any public prosecutor in the court for cases. In practice, there is no case on food safety under this Act in the Pure Food Court across the country except Dhaka.
The local and central authority are silent and inactive about the filing of cases in the Court and receive complaints from the consumers. The food safety authority has published a special supplement on the celebration of the National Food Safety Day–2020 where the activities of the authority have been provided. But there was no information about the regular filing of cases in the pure food courts across the country whereas the details of mobile courts were supplied. Moreover on the website of the food safety authority, there is no information regarding the filing of the cases in the courts and any legal action taken for investigation and filing prosecution. That means the 71 pure food courts are misnomers in terms of any activity towards ensuring food safety.
The Food Safety Act 2013 is a very progressive law to entertain complaints of the aggrieved persons taking action on spot and filing prosecution by the authority. Section 66 of the Act provides that “(1) Any person, including food purchaser, consumer, food receiver or user, may lodge a complaint in writing to the Chairman or any person authorized by him in this behalf or an Inspector, in respect of any anti-food safety practice under this Act. (2) After being informed of an offence under this Act, the Chairman or the person authorized by him in this behalf or the Inspector, if primarily be confirmed about the commission of such offence after making necessary inquiry or investigation, shall file a case before the Food Court. (3) Notwithstanding anything contained contrary in this section, any person may lodge a case before the Food Court in respect of any anti-food safety practice within 30 (thirty) days from the date of cause of such act.” In practice, the people are unknown about the application of this provision.
The legal promise is to call people to file complaints and for such public awareness the Act approves some incentives to the complainant like that of the Consumer Protection Act 2009. As per section 62 states that “If any person is convicted and thereby punished with fine by a Food Court, the concerned complainant shall be entitled to get 25 (twenty five) percent of the said amount as incentive.” This provision is also not well-known to people. Considering above provisions, it is crystal clear that the Act 2013 keeps wonderful provisions to file complaints to the concerned local authority and lodge case in the Pure Food Court directly. By the filing the case, the complainant can get a good compensation from the fine as incentive for social action.
The investigation process is also fine in this statute achieving success in the prosecution. Section 67 of the Act depicts the format of investigation. The investigating officer will enjoy the power of the OC of the police station and he can follow the Code of Criminal Procedure to complete the investigation. As per mandate of section 68, the investigation officer will get 120 days for investigation to submit report in the Pure Food Court. The pure food court will conduct the trial summarily in accordance with section 65. The pure food court can accept audio, video footage, photograph and any other type of visual evidence for the ends of justice in food adulteration under section 72 of the Act.
It’s also a fantastic statutory right on the food safety that section 76 of the Food Safety Act 2013 gives also civil right to file civil legal action along with criminal case claiming compensation against their health injury as like the international practice of law of tort. But this provision is also not known to the people and possibly there has not been file any civil suit under this Act.
To ensure consumer rights effectively and achieving the sustainable development goal (SDG) within 2030 on food safety, it is necessary to establish a separate pure food court to deal with cases of violation of consumers’ rights and food adulteration. A separate pure food court can actively keep surveillance and co-ordinate the high promise of the Act and government zero tolerance actions implementing the legal enforcement stringently. Moreover the pure food court can conduct mobile court for initiating summary trials on the spot. Recently in some districts of the country such as Rajshahi, Bandarban, Patuakhali, Chandpur Magistrate courts have conducted Pure Food Court on spots and taken legal actions for food safety justice. The pure food court is the mainstream authority to ensure food safety justice but such courts are in the dark when we cry out for justice and action for food safety and health.
The writer is a member of Bangladesh Judicial Service & Senior Judicial Magistrate, Chief Judicial Magistrate Court, Feni.