Wanted: More Staff at Burma’s Food Safety Regulator

By San Yamin Aung 6 January 2014

RANGOON — Burma’s Food and Drug Administration lacks the resources necessary to adequately inspect food products in a local market that consumer advocates say is inundated with dicey offerings, according to one of the government regulatory body’s directors.

“The main requirement to do full inspections of the market is manpower. There are 60 million people in our country. But in the FDA, to check food safety, there are about 40 staffers,” Dr. Tun Zaw, director of the FDA’s Food Safety Department, told The Irrawaddy.

The FDA monitors the safety and quality of food, drugs, medical devices and cosmetics, and issues health recommendations for local food manufacturers, according to the Ministry of Health. It also issues health certifications on imported and exported products.

Tun Zaw said the FDA tests pre-packaged food products, while inspection of meat, fish and agricultural products fall under the jurisdiction of other government agencies.

“With 40 staffers at six FDA branches countrywide, it is impossible to fully inspect foodstuffs in the market in order to notify the public as to whether there are foodstuffs that could be harmful to health and to withdraw foodstuffs from the market that should not be consumed,” he said.

Ideally, the FDA’s food safety ranks would be at least 10 times larger, Tun Zaw said, adding that the regulator had begun recruiting additional staff and training new hires.

Ba Oak Khine, chairman of Burma’s Consumer Protection Association, said the inability of the FDA to carry out its regulatory mandate was troubling, given the dubious manufacturing practices used by many local producers and foreign importers.

“About 70 or 80 percent of foodstuffs in the market are not safe to eat. Most include fake coloring and chemicals for [altering] color, smell and taste that are very harmful to health,” he said, adding that he had noted advertisements for FDA job vacancies in local newspapers.

An adequately staffed FDA would need to conduct market inspections at least once every three months, Ba Oak Khine said.

“I am not seeing that the FDA regularly rechecks the products that received initial approval for distribution in the market. Most businessmen are selling substandard products that are unlikely to be the same as the sample ones that they sent to the FDA for approval,” he said.

Tun Zaw, the FDA director, admitted that there were many food products of poor quality on the market, and said the problem was exacerbated by imports that entered Burma illegally and thus were unscrutinized by the regulatory body.

“Unless illegal border trading stops, we cannot stop the public from purchasing foodstuffs that are harmful to health,” he said.

The FDA is charged with checking the quality of food products for approval to import, but the Ministry of Commerce is the import license issuing authority. Commerce also deploys a “mobile team” to take action against illegally imported products.

Tun Zaw said consumers should avoid foods with extreme coloring and foods packaged in foreign languages that they are unable to read.

“It is certain that foods that are only described in the Chinese language were not inspected by us. Parents and teachers should ensure that their children do not purchase snacks like that,” the FDA director said.

Ba Oak Khine said his organization had found that 90 percent of the products sold in snack shops at schools in Rangoon were harmful to health in recent research, which concluded that the high incidence could lead to an increase in the number of child cancer patients.