Health Minister must truly safeguard Goans’ health
Though officials of the Quality Council of India (QCI) and food and drugs administration (FDA) have begun testing fish at Patradevi and Polem, questions have been raised over the consistency and efficacy of tests and the techniques used by them. Though the government issued notification that the tests would be carried out 24×7, ground reports have revealed that the laboratories are shut during the day time; officials go to Patradevi and Polem checkposts only during the night hours. The health department needs to provide the border test labs a place of their own. Currently tests are carried out in a make-shift manner in a shared space at the police outpost at Patradevi. The present setup gives ample scope for unscrupulous traders to smuggle in contaminated fish during day time and sell it in state markets. There are reports of fish trucks, which were not allowed to enter Goa for lack of documentation in the night time, driving through the checkpost to unload their consignments for sale during daytime.
Even as the testing of fish, though a nocturnal exercise, has begun Health Minister Vishwajit Rane assured the public that the government is conscious of its responsibility to provide safe fish for consumption. For that the systems have to be in place. He said that the QCI and FDA officials were using Japanese techniques of testing fish samples from the trucks. In contrast, a press note released by the director of FDA states that the tests on fish were being done using kits developed by the Central Institute of Fisheries Technology (CIFT) according to the action plan prepared by QCI. A cursory look at the Japanese fish testing techniques showed that they are much more rigorous. The QCI and FDA officials are not checking the many parameters the Japanese use. Do CIFT kits stand anywhere in comparison to the Japanese techniques? If the Health Minister indeed wants better techniques of testing to be used for checking fish coming to Goa he should find properly trained technicians and the right equipment for carrying them out. Goans would be highly pleased to have their fish tested by superior techniques before they are allowed to be brought by traders to the markets.
And if superior techniques have to wait for lack of funds for equipment and trained manpower, the minister should at least establish a strong checking system with the standard techniques used in India with the approval of the standards by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI). The CIFT techniques are not foolproof; even if they detect toxins further tests have to be done in order to confirm the findings. After imposing a ban on import of fish and promising a world class testing facility to certify fish, the authorities lifted the ban and ordered checks at the entry points which were haphazard and soon the border checks were withdrawn. The Goans were then promised a world class laboratory to check fish to be set up by the Exports Inspection Agency (EIA) within six months. Though six months elapsed, the laboratory is yet to take shape. The government now says it would take a year to make the laboratory functional. The space is lying vacant.
The public is not interested in what technology is used to check fish, Indian or international. The government has to ensure that testing kits give correct readings and fish is free from harmful chemicals. Stopping-starting and changing of techniques every now and then has led to questions being raised about the sincerity of the government for establishing an efficacious process. A sad consequence is that the FDA has lost its credibility. Who are to be blamed for this? Both the health department and the FDA. There is need for them to be transparent to the public. The FDA’s record of make traders of fruits and vegetables adhere to standards has been poor. The fruit and vegetable traders have found ways to avoid detection. However, fish is a food commodity that can be tested for content of chemicals using standard techniques. The FDA should make at least fish safe for Goans’ consumption.