A battle between the Chattogram customs and fish feed importers over the jurisdiction of the port authority to check hazardous substances in imported consignments has laid bare loopholes in the import policy.
A few months back, the Chattogram Customs House (CCH) seized 2,717 tonnes of imported fish and poultry feed containing hazardous ingredients like meat and bone meal (MBM), animal bones and by-products of pigs.
The CCH then conducted tests on some samples of fish feed at the Poultry Research and Training Centre, ICCDDR, B and Customs Lab. The tests revealed the presence of MBM.
The commerce ministry banned the import and sale of MBM on December 26, 2018, following a report of the Bangladesh Food Safety Authority.
The ban came after the Bangladesh Food Safety Authority found by-products of swine and bovine in MBM and alerted the ministry to its hazardous impact -- including cancer -- on human health.
Fishtech BD Ltd, a fish feed importer, took issue with the tests and brought the matter before the High Court.
It said the Import Policy Order 2015-18 does not allow the Customs to test the presence of MBM and other harmful medicine.
The policy says “competent authority of the exporting country” will certify that goods are free from swine, by-product of tannery and chromium. Such certifications were also furnished before the court, copies of which were obtained by this newspaper.
Furthermore, it pointed out that according to the policy, local authorities were only tasked with checking nitrofuran, chloramphenicol and melamine upon arrival of consignments at the port.
After hearing the petition, on August 14, the HC ordered tests to be done at the Bangladesh Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (BCSIR), popularly known as Science Laboratory, in compliance with the Import Policy.
The CCH had decided to send the samples to BCSIR for tests on August 27 and know if the samples contained any antibiotics, including two specific ones – nitrofuran and chloramphenicol -- and by-products of pigs and cattle.
But following the HC order, it asked the laboratory not to test for the presence of “porcine and bovine derivatives.”
Contacted, Customs Commissioner Fakhrul Alam said they had withdrawn the request for the tests for swine and bovine by-products.
The Fish Feed Rules 2011 formulated under the 2010 Fish Feed Act has a long list of prohibited substances that fish feed might be contaminated with. The rules, however, allow a maximum limit of 25 percent MBM in fish feed.
Experts, however, point out that that rule was negated after the ban on MBM imposed by the commerce ministry. They also suspect this was a case of MBM being disguised as fish feed.
As for the major arguments against the tests, the Bangladesh Aqua Product Companies Association in a written document said the test used for identifying presence of bovine and swine elements was highly sensitive and the results would be positive even for cases where there was the slightest of contamination.
Meat and bone meal might not be forbidden in the exporting country and so if local and exportable goods are produced in the same set-up, contamination may happen.
There is a solution.
Prof Mohammad Riazul Islam, of the biochemistry and molecular biology department of Dhaka University, said quantitative PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) test could measure quantity of MBM resolving the confusion whether goods had negligible contamination or were made of the forbidden substances.
But for that a legal provision had to be in place for the test upon arrival of consignments at ports.
The Customs have appealed with the Appellate Division against the HC order and the hearing on it is scheduled for today.