THE state government needs to do much more to free people’s minds from apprehensions that fish coming from outside is unsafe – especially since the government has said the state demand for fish cannot be met by local production and has to be met with import. When the government announced a 15-day ‘ban’ on imported fish, the people failed to read the notification between the lines that the ban was only on the sale and consumption of the imported fish; import of fish was allowed if it was for other purposes, such as manufacture of fishmeal. The question is: are there foolproof and honest checks on what the imported fish is coming for – fishmeal or camouflaged sale? The government stand is that they are not checking the quality of fish imported to Goa that is not used for sale and consumption purposes. The suspicions linger in the minds of people that unscrupulous importers might misuse the government’s permission to bring unsafe fish and distribute it through various means including use of smaller vehicles. The FDA does not have the means or mandate to check every consignment of fish entering Goa or every market or vendor across the state that might be selling unsafe fish.
All the government’s assertion that the fish samples collected from the consignments at the wholesale market in Margao on July 12 were safe for consumption have failed to inspire trust among the people about the imported fish being really harmless. Despite the FDA announcing its results declaring the fish to be safe for human consumption, most Goans have refrained from eating their staple diet the fish that comes from outside. Fish markets wear a deserted look and the demand for fish has dropped. The duality of FDA results, one on the spot and another in the lab, sowed the seeds of suspicion in the minds of the people. Reversing the findings of the FDA team on the stop, the FDA head office claimed the presence of formalin in fish was within permissible limits. Later, Health Minister Vishwajit Rane and Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar admitted there was no permissible limit for formalin in fish and the mention of it was a mistake.
There are several fishmeal manufacturing units in the state and their operations should be allowed unhindered. At the same time care has to be taken that import of fish is strictly for the purpose of fishmeal manufacture, during the ban period and beyond. Besides, the state has a duty to ensure that people get food items which are free from chemicals. The quality of all food items, not only fish, has to be checked routinely. There have been reports in the past that fruits and vegetables are laced with chemicals but hardly anyone has been caught and punished, except for a few fruit vendors whose chemically ripened fruits were destroyed. The checking of food items should be routine and those found adulterating food should be given exemplary punishment so as to serve as deterrent to others. The stand of the government on food safety should be clear and unambiguous. The FDA being the state agency to safeguard the interest of the consumers of food items they need to be more active. FDA officials say they are understaffed and they are unable to cope with the increased workload. Adequate staffing of the FDA would help the government agency act against unscrupulous elements more regularly to prevent unsafe food being sold to the people. The state government should take immediate steps to fill in the vacancies.
There is need to inculcate professionalism among the FDA staff and make its functioning free from political interference. Perhaps Goa is the only state which has two food safety commissioners in the country. The nameplate of the present director of the FDA Jyoti Sardesai indicates that she is also commissioner of food safety, while the notification on import of fish was issued by J Ashok Kumar as commissioner of food safety. Almost all the food commissioners in the country are drawn from all India services (IAS, IRS, IES, etc); Goa is the only state to have an official in the rank of a director to head the department. The government should remove the ambiguity over the issue and ensure that the department functions independently. Given the fact the there is a persisting atmosphere of distrust among the people of the state due to the way the issue of formalin in fish was handled by the authorities, the government should take steps to build confidence among the people in the FDA by appointing officers with food safety background as FDA director.