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New food policy in the offing :

Closing gaps in current food laws

The long overdue food policy, now being drafted by the Ministry of Health is welcomed by health personnel.

Following Director General Health Services, Dr P.G. Maheepala's recent revelation that a food policy is being drafted, health officials described it as a step in the right direction. Food contamination in all forms is on the rise and it is the main cause for the spread of food- borne diseases in the country.

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"We hope the food policy once implemented, will deter manufacturers and owners of food establishments from continuing to flout the regulations on food hygiene under the existing Food Act," Food Administration Unit sources told the Sunday Observer on the grounds of anonymity.

The policy however, is not likely to be implemented in the immediate future.

Asked when the policy would be submitted for Cabinet approval, Dr Maheepala said, " It will take some time, as we need to get the views of all stakeholders since it affects all of us . The policy and legal framework already exist. So it is not something new.

They need to be strengthened to address the challenges in the food industry".

Consultant Community Physician and Deputy Director Environmental and Occupational Health , Ministry of Health, Dr H.D.B. Herath, said, " The issue we face is that there are so many food handling establishments. From small cadjan-roofed street boutiques and street vendors to the star class hotels are guilty of selling bacteria contaminated food, faecal matter and chemicals.

"Due to the variation in location and cooking procedures, it is not possible to apply the same standard to all hotels and food outlets. We are now studying the food safety procedures adopted in other countries and have sent some of our officers abroad for this purpose. The policy must cover every aspect of the food industry. So it will take at least another year or more to be finalised," he said.

Artificial processes

Commenting on the food industry here and abroad, he said food is not directly consumed in its natural form by most humans. Hence most of the food we eat are subjected to artificial processes such as food processing and modification which changed its natural form." It can thus be exposed to many hazards that are microbiological, chemical and technological", he said.

When asked about genetically modified food in Sri Lankan supermarkets, he said genetically modified food are a result of recent advances in biotechnology and nanotechnology in the food industry. "However, all genetically modified food found here is imported.

Because of the large number of such food items found in the open market posing health risks we are paying special attention to such food items. They also now fall under separate regulation introduced recently. This means no one can import food or ingredients that have been genetically modified, without first informing us. We will then do a risk assessment of the samples they give us . Only if they pass the tests we will allow such imports", he said.

"The Health Ministry regularly tests such samples at accredited laboratories"

Responding to a question whether the Health Ministry is currently focusing on certain food items, he said, "We are concerned about soya and maize which have a big demand. We have found no proof that they are genetically modified. But that does not mean we can rule them out. So we will continue to test them."

Dr Herath said anyone who deliberately imports food knowing that they can be injurious to health, can be prosecuted under the Criminal Procedure Act. He said traders and manufactures in the food industry are being trained in good manufacturing and marketing practices.

Food safety is constantly being monitored at international, national and local provincial council levels by the Health Ministry. Several awareness-raising programs on food safety were also being conducted island wide while our Public Health Inspectors also conduct regular inspections in food establishments.", he said.

Nutrition policy

The Ministry of Health has also initiated new methods of addressing problems of sub standard food in canteens.

Already, on the instructions of President Maithrapala Sirisena, a Schools Canteen policy is now being implemented in all government schools with attention given to the food served ( preferably local cereals with less fat, salt and sugar) the site of the canteens and their immediate environment and preparation. According to the Schools Nutrition Policy Division, most schools are adhering to the policy with teachers, principals and parents keen to ensure that children consume safe and nutritious food.

Work place canteens

Plans are also afoot to address shortcomings in work place canteens, a long neglected area in the food industry in a more vigorous manner in the future.

Acting Director Nutrition Policy Dr A.M.A Mahamithwa, said there were no regulations with regard to food sold at workplace canteens, which the Nutrition Unit of the Health Ministry oversees.

"What we have is a National Nutrition Policy. Based on that, we have developed healthy food dietary guidelines for workplace canteens which are patronised by all workers irrespective of their positions.

These guidelines are to create awareness among owners of such canteens of the importance of providing nutritious and safe food to their customers.

Based on the same guidelines, we have developed three colour codes similar to the traffic lights system: Green for food that is healthy and should be consumed daily, Amber for food that could be eaten in limited quantities and Red for food which should be avoided .

This is to encourage them to serve nutritious food which will benefit them and their customers and minimize non communicable diseases in the country".

Chief Medical Officer Dr Ruwan Wijeyamuni said the CMC had been forced to close some canteens including the canteen at the Fort Railway Station due to sub standard food being served.

He said medical inspections of all food handlers was also essential for any canteen and added that training in safe food preparation for canteen owners was underway.

New directive

The Consumer Affairs Authority has also stepped in with a new directive to encourage the local catering industry to adhere to safe food practices. "We have issued a new gazette notice in which all caterers and hoteliers will hereafter be required to obtain food Manufacturing Practices Certificate ( GMP) from us. The deadline is January 31, 2017 ."

Asked why the new law would be on hold for over a year, she said, "They need to be given time to prepare their workplaces according to GMP, which include food preparation, storage, water and toilet facilities and hygienic food handling. " If people stop patronising outlets that sell sub quality food it will help solve the issue to a great extent," a CAA spokesman said.

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